Kabul - 22 March 2003
Your Excellency Mr. President, Your Excellency the Minister of Education and Other Members of the Cabinet, Members of the Diplomatic Community, Honoured Guests:
It is exactly one year to the day since I was last in Afghanistan, witnessing the return to school of what turned out to be 3 million children - one-third of them girls. Mr. President, that day was the source of some of my most indelible UNICEF memories - and it was a privilege to share with you and the people of Afghanistan so a defining moment in the history of your country.
This has been a year of considerable change for the women and children of Afghanistan, not least of all in the education sector. So let me remind everyone here today of the achievements in education that have been won under the Transitional Government - achievements that are a testimony to the efforts of the Government, community leaders, teachers, parents and students, all of whom who have worked tirelessly over the last 12 months to bring more and more children back to the classroom.
Consider the following:
Over 7,000 schools are now operating across Afghanistan, providing both formal and non-formal learning spaces.
Some 42 percent of all Afghan children are enrolled in the First Grade, an extraordinary turnout that may reflect a widespread desire among young people to catch up and not be left behind.
About 80 per cent of all pupils are in the first four grades, and they represent a whole new generation of young women and men who are ready to learn - and who someday will be ready to take Afghanistan forward with them.
Over 77,000 teachers now hold the responsibility of shaping the minds of those children - and nearly one-third of these teachers are female, an indication of how education is also creating new opportunities for women, who for so long have been denied the right to practice their professions.
But all these gains should not be viewed in isolation from developments elsewhere in the world. Education - or the lack of it - is one of the most pressing issues that societies face today.
A generation denied access to education runs a higher risk of turning to conflict to resolve its differences.
Mr. President, Afghanistan's history shows that it cannot take those risks. By investing in education we are investing in the future stability and prosperity of the country and of the region. By investing particularly in girls' education we build the foundations of a stronger nation. Every day that an Afghan girl goes to school increases opportunities for her, for her family, for her community, for her country.
More than 115 million children around the globe - the majority of them girls - lack access to quality basic education - and for them, the health consequences can be daunting.
A child - especially a girl - who is denied education runs a higher risk of poor health, the risk of being exploited and abused by others, of being increasingly marginalised, and of losing self-esteem.
At the UN Special Session on Children last May, world leaders made a clear promise to achieve universal girls' education by 2015. Afghanistan is a perfect example of a country where we cannot afford to renege on that promise.
A key interim objective is accelerate progress toward achieving gender parity in primary school enrolment by 2005, as agreed to governments that committed themselves to the UN Millennium Development Goals.
That is why UNICEF is currently working with 25 countries in the hope that the concentration of additional resources and interventions can make girls' enrolment equal to boys' over the next three years - thus the name, 25 by 2005.
And I am pleased to announce that Afghanistan has been designated as one of those 25 countries.
This year, UNICEF will support the provision of student materials for 4 million primary school children. We will support the training of 50,000 teachers. We will support the rehabilitation and construction of at least 200 primary schools and ensure that every primary school in Afghanistan has a safe water point. Sanitation facilities will be provided in at least 1,500 primary schools to make schools more welcoming and safe for girls.
We will also continue our support to the Ministry of Education in such areas as curriculum development, women's literacy and logistics management. And I would also like to call upon the international community to match that commitment. I know that there has been much assistance provided to date from around the world, I know that a strong foundation is already in place.
A strong foundation has been built over the last 12 months with the efforts and energies of our friends in Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and many other donor countries.
As we stand here today in Amani High School, where thanks to the support of the German Government new facilities have been installed, classrooms renovated and the physical environment greatly improved, we are reminded of what can be achieved when all play our part. But we cannot stand back and simply survey the foundations with pride; we must continue to build.
Education is more than about just learning. It encapsulates a core right of children, especially that of girls', to develop and grow. Just as UNICEF appeals to the international community to support that right, we are also urging communities across Afghanistan to invest in education for their girls, to give girls' a chance to face the future on an equal standing as boys. I call upon communities to work together to sow the seeds of learning in their homes, in their schools.
I know that in recent weeks and months a small minority has sought to use education as a way of attacking the development process here in Afghanistan.
But I also know that those few communities affected did not bow to that pressure and continued to send their girls to school. That is a sign of real strength, the type of strength that is needed to rebuild Afghanistan from the communities upwards.
I often hear Afghan people say that if we had all invested more in education in this country in the past, history may not have judged Afghanistan so harshly.
Inevitably the attention of the global community is focusing on other areas of the world right now, but we cannot afford to ignore the lessons learned here in Afghanistan.
We cannot afford to ignore the progress that has been made in the last year, much less the important work that still needs to be done.
We cannot, in short, risk failing the children of Afghanistan, for then it will be us who will be judged by history - and the judgement will be deservedly harsh.
Mr. President, the girls and young women of Afghanistan, liberated from the darkness of the past seven years, stand ready to play their part in the reconstruction of their country.
I heard recently of a young student here in Kabul, 12-year-old Sadiqa, who has spent the last three months studying in catch-up classes during the winter vacation so she could make up for those years of missed opportunities. Four hours a day, six days a week she put her energies into her studies, determined to make education her route to a better future.
Your Excellency, I should advise you that Sadiqa has real ambition. When asked what she would like to do when she has completed her schooling, she told my colleagues that she wanted to be the next President of Afghanistan.
We need now to respond to the energy and determination of young women like Sadiqa, for all of us have much to do if we are to ensure that her dreams, and the dreams of millions of children in Afghanistan, can come true at last.