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UNICEF Regional Director assesses situation on the ground in Afghanistan

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Sweeting
UNICEF Regional Director Dan Toole meets young children who have been forced to smuggle goods across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to survive, but now, with the help of UNICEF, are going to school.

By Ash Sweeting

KABUL, Afghanistan, 27 May 2009 – UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia Dan Toole concluded a four-day visit to Afghanistan last week, assessing the situation on the ground.

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During the visit, he met with government officials, donors, and UN and non-governmental organization partners before heading to the eastern province of Nangarhar.

“Afghanistan is a very complex place,” said Mr. Toole, who will submit a 2010-2013 Afghan country programme to the UNICEF Executive Board in early June. “It still has fighting, it still has very high infant mortality, very high maternal mortality, very low access to clean water and sanitation.”

Progress in education
Despite the many challenges facing the country, progress is being made in education, health and access to safe drinking water.

Today, more than 6 million Afghan children go to school, while in 2001 that figure was 1 million. More than 2 million of the current students are girls.

But child protection is becoming a more pressing priority as the conflict in Afghanistan continues. Increasing numbers of children are being caught in the fighting. Earlier this month, an air strike in the western province of Farah caused one of the largest civilian casualty incidents in the conflict; many of the victims were children.

UNICEF is calling on all parties in the conflict to respect international humanitarian laws.

Need for greater security

Attacks on schools continue to be a concern for UNICEF. The most recent was an alleged poison-gas attack on a school just a few hours north-east of Kabul. In the south, meanwhile, there are now many areas where it is no longer safe for children to go to school.

“If we can’t keep security, we can’t ensure schools stay open and we can’t ensure that health clinics work and we can’t ensure polio vaccinations reach those who need it,” said Mr. Toole.

Community involvement is the key strategy that UNICEF is promoting in order to improve security in schools and encourage families to send and keep their children in school.

Supporting young people
Mr. Toole said UNICEF will continue to focus on supporting Afghanistan’s young people. “Sixty-eight per cent of the population of Afghanistan is under the age of 25. That’s about education, it’s about protection and about their health,” he said.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Sweeting
At the UNICEF-supported school in Torkham, located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, young Afghan girls learn to read and write, and get at least one meal a day.

At Torkham, a town on the border with Pakistan, Mr. Toole saw how UNICEF is working to prevent the spread of polio. Teams of vaccinators are permanently stationed at the crossing to make sure that all children under the age of six travelling in either direction are vaccinated.

On his stop in Torkham, Mr. Toole met some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in the area. They are now going to school and getting at least one meal a day because of the work of an NGO that is partnering with UNICEF.

“For UNICEF, Afghanistan is one of our biggest challenges. We have enormous development challenges on top of incredible security challenges,” said Mr. Toole. “We have to invest now so that people realize there is a benefit to peace.”




21 May 2009: UNICEF’s Ash Sweeting reports on UNICEF Regional Director Dan Toole’s visit to Afghanistan.
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