Progress in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban has been significant. However, a report launched by UNICEF today, Child Alert Afghanistan, cautions that efforts to build on that significant progress will be increasingly difficult, particularly in the south of the country, as a result of the recent upsurge in insecurity.
There has been considerable progress made in the health, nutrition and education sectors in recent years. The majority of the population now has access to a basic package of health services. Routine immunization coverage has risen from 56 per cent in 2001 to 90 per cent in 2006. Vitamin A coverage is now 95 per cent and consumption of iodized salt has risen from less than 2 per cent to almost 30 per cent. There have been substantial increases in school enrolment and one-third of the children in school today are girls, up from about three per cent when the Taliban were in power.
However this progress is fragile. In the Child Alert, Martin Bell, UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies, chronicles the difficult situation still facing millions of children across Afghanistan.
“Despite a multitude of plans and proposals, projects and partners, and the support of many countries working to bring peace and progress to Afghanistan, I have witnessed a spike in insecurity that is causing more and more schools to close and more and more children to be killed” said Bell, who made his second trip to the country for this report. “Families, especially in the south, are caught in the middle of this crossfire, out of reach of humanitarian assistance. Simply put, it is make or break time for Afghanistan’s children.”
Bell visited some of those who remain extremely vulnerable, including women who earn $2 working nine-and-a-half hour workdays separating goat hair, with their babies suspended above them in the make-shift factories of Herat. In Kabul, he spoke to street children and sought out the most marginalized. In a women’s prison housing 49 women and their 35 children, he met girls who had been forced to marry men who could be their grandfathers.
During the time of the Taliban, girls were not officially allowed to attend schools. However enrolment of girls at the primary level has increased dramatically in the past five years. According to the Ministry of Education, almost 6 million children were enrolled in school in 2007. This is a remarkable achievement, set against a backdrop of an education system that is only now recovering from three decades of conflict.
A new plan, to promote child-friendly schools by providing nutrition, water and sanitation services in schools, training female teachers and reaching out to girls who are out of school should further accelerate girls’ enrolment in school. UNICEF is also funding the training and reintegration of former child soldiers by teaching them useful skills like carpentry and electrical engineering.
In the insurgency-plagued southern provinces, while thousands of children went back to school this year, hundreds of schools remained at risk due to the insecurity.
However humanitarian access has become increasingly difficult in some areas. At least 78 districts have been rated by the United Nations as extremely risky, and inaccessible to UN humanitarian workers.
This limited access has resulted in challenges in certain programs. In 2007, taking advantage of the so-called Days of Tranquility, 15,000 vaccinators travelled throughout Afghanistan as part of the National Immunization Days organized by the Ministry of Public Health, and supported by WHO and UNICEF. New cases of polio dropped from 31 in 2006 to nine between January and July 2007. Of those nine new cases, seven are in the insecure regions of the south and east of the country.
Bell cites the polio programme as an example of what the country is capable of. “If the Afghans can do that in wartime, what can they do in peace?” he asks.
The report illustrates the need for improvements in security, particularly for women and girls. Fear is a strong deterrent to access to education and other essential services. In parts of the country, “night letters” carrying threats to teachers and parents risk causing families to keep their children out of school.
The Child Alert report also argues strongly for increased efforts to address Afghanistan’s maternal mortality rate. Afghanistan has long had one of the highest maternal mortality rates. These rates will not decline unless women have better access to the improved health facilities.
“We need to create an environment where children are protected and have the opportunity to fulfill their potential. The progress that has been made in education and in child health shows what can be achieved when all stakeholders work together to press for improvement,” said Catherine Mbengue, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, who joined Bell at the launch in Geneva. “However much more needs to be done if we are to make the gains of recent years sustainable and offer a brighter future to all Afghanistan’s children.”
UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments .