UNICEF's humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan include addressing soaring rates of severe malnutrition among children, vaccinating against preventable diseases and paying teachers to keep public schools going — and girls learning instead of working or married. But as UNICEF Executive Director Catherine M. Russell notes, aid agencies can only do so much. "I urge the de facto authorities to translate their promises on women and children’s rights into concrete action and allow all girls to go to school and all women to go back to work — without any further delays."
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine M. Russell, following a three-day visit to Afghanistan, expressed "grave concerns" about what she saw and urged the international community and Afghanistan's de facto authorities to find ways to work together for the sake of the country's children.
"Decisions and actions taken today will dictate whether these children live or die, whether they suffer or thrive, and ultimately, whether the country survives or declines," Russell said in a Feb. 25 statement.
Girls in Afghanistan especially at risk of being permanently shut out of education and denied the skills they need to build dignified, prosperous futures
Millions of children – girls especially – risk being permanently shut out of education and denied the skills they need to build dignified, prosperous futures. Families are being crushed by crippling poverty and hunger, forcing destitute parents to make desperate choices: UNICEF has received reports of young daughters being exchanged for dowry, children forced to work and infants being sold.
“In the streets of Kabul, scores of very young children dart in and out of traffic, chasing cars and asking for money," Russell said. "Store shelves and vegetable markets are well stocked, yet hardly anyone can afford to buy. In a hospital in Kandahar, emaciated babies lie motionless two to a bed, too weak to even cry amid a spike in cases of severe acute malnutrition. A 25-year-old mother of five told me that her family subsists on a diet of bread and water. And things are poised to get even worse."
Decades of conflict, a devastating drought, a collapsing economy and the impact of international sanctions are all causing irreparable damage to children, Russell noted.
The boys and girls I spoke to have dreams, but they can’t fulfill them if they continue to be shut out of school, if they have to work on the streets, if they are married off in exchange for dowry, if their parents have no jobs, or if they are dying from hunger.
"The boys and girls I spoke to have dreams, but they can’t fulfill them if they continue to be shut out of school, if they have to work on the streets, if they are married off in exchange for dowry, if their parents have no jobs, or if they are dying from hunger," she said. "We can, and must, do better for them."
For the last 70 years in Afghanistan, UNICEF has worked to build trust with communities; negotiated with all parties to conflict for humanitarian access to children and families in need; and has become adept at delivering lifesaving supplies in difficult circumstances.
Girls’ education in Afghanistan has been a top priority for UNICEF for decades, as demonstrated through long-term investments in creating and sustaining learning spaces that are closer to home, ensuring the presence of female teachers and other measures that improve girls' chances of staying in school. UNICEF continues to reach out to girls and other marginalized students with community-based education in coordination with local partners and other UN agencies and has been scaling up its delivery capacity in recent months to better respond to new realities and needs on the ground.
Helping to pay public school teachers a monthly stipend for at least two months is one of many steps UNICEF has taken to help keep classrooms open, for both girls and boys. Teachers who have stayed on the job despite security concerns and other stressors have been working without pay for many months. Payments will be made to all 194,000 public-school teachers in Afghanistan, which includes those who teach at public primary and secondary schools, technical and vocational institutions and teacher training centers.
“Following months of uncertainty and hardship for many teachers, we are pleased to extend emergency support to public school teachers in Afghanistan who have spared no effort to keep children learning,” Dr. Mohamed Ayoya, UNICEF Afghanistan Representative said when the initiative was announced on Feb. 20.
Schools are more than structures where children learn; they are a safe space that protects children from the physical dangers around them – including abuse and exploitation — and can offer them much-needed psychosocial support. Roughly 8.8 million children are enrolled in public school in Afghanistan.
The emergency cash support for teachers is a temporary fix, however. As Russell notes, aid agencies can only do so much to protect children's rights and futures in Afghanistan.
Urging de facto authorities to make good on promises to uphold women and children's rights — and allow girls to go to school
“I urge the de facto authorities to translate their promises on women and children’s rights into concrete action and allow all girls to go to school and all women to go back to work — without any further delays," Russell said. "I urge them to do their utmost to put services back on track, including by paying teachers, health workers and other public servants. I ask them to guarantee the safety of polio workers who do heroic work and face constant threats as we saw yesterday with the tragic killing of eight polio workers in Kunduz."
Russell also urged the international community to find ways to avoid any conditionalities that impede access to lifesaving support and that stop frontline workers from getting paid, noting that more funding is needed for UNICEF to reach the most vulnerable.
"We are grateful for the support we have received, but the needs are massive and we need additional funds," Russell said. "Time is of the essence."
Learn more about how UNICEF is helping girls get back to school around the world — making sure they stay in school and continue to thrive every day.
Top photo: Girls attend classes at a UNICEF-supported community-based school in Kandahar’s Dand district on Feb. 24, 2022. Community-based education centers like this one are designed for children, especially girls, who lack access to formal schooling due to their remote location, insecurity or harmful social norms. As of the end of January 2022, nearly 246,000 out-of-school children — more than half of them girls — were learning in over 7,800 UNICEF-supported community-based schools across the country, housed in local community buildings, mosques and even homes. © UNICEF/UN0597236/Fazel