Building peace in the minds of men and women

Education, Culture and Women’s Rights: the forces for Afghanistan’s Transformation

Afghanistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zalmai Rassoul, requested UNESCO’s support in protecting heritage, expanding education and improving women’s rights, during a meeting with UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, in Kabul on 19 May.

“Cultural heritage and education are what suffered most during three decades of conflict,” said Minister Rassoul, thanking UNESCO for its leadership in the aftermath of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and for its assistance in rebuilding the education system from scratch, noting the positive links between access to education and improvement in women’s rights.

The Director-General affirmed UNESCO’s resolve to expand its cooperation, noting that the nation’s large youth population and its tremendous cultural assets held “incredible potential for the future.” 

Referring to the archaeological site of Mes Aynak, she reiterated the need for its preservation and protection in light of the decision by the Afghan Government on the future mining excavations project foreseen at the site. The Director-General stressed the need to balance economic development and cultural heritage preservation, emphasizing that cultural heritage constitutes an essential part of the people’s history and an asset for national unity and social cohesion.

She further reiterated the values of in situ preservation of the wealth of archaeological heritage in Mes Aynak, and concluded that UNESCO stands ready to assist the Afghan authorities in defining a strategy to guide the government in developing management plans at the country's archaeological sites.

Mrs Bokova had a chance to view the wealth of Afghanistan’s ancient cultural heritage, from prehistoric to Hindu, Classical, Buddhist and Islamic, on display at the National Museum, which was severely destroyed during the war by rocket fire and some 70% of its collections were looted.  She also witnessed another dimension of this heritage during a dinner hosted by the Minister of Culture and Information, Mr Sayed Makhdoum Raheen, in the restored Gardens of Babur, a historical park that is also the resting place of the first Mughal emperor Babur.

The theme of women’s education and empowerment was repeatedly stressed during the Director-General’s meeting with a group of parliamentarians.  They cited lack of safety and female teachers as major obstacles to getting girls into school. Concern was also expressed about gains made in women’s rights over the past decade being undermined in the lead up to the 2014 national elections. The Minister of Women’s Affairs, Ms Banu Ghazanfar, explained that international legal instruments such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women had been approved by Presidential decree and a range of policies put in place to address violence against women, notably through the provision of legal support and the establishment of a database to record violent incidents. The Director-General stressed the importance of women being aware of their rights, and of effective law enforcement, reiterating that violence against women has no justification under any circumstances.

The Director-General gained an overview of the economic, social and political transition in Afghanistan during a meeting with senior officials of the UN Country Team, led by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Mr Jan Kubis.  Linking adult literacy with skills acquisition, media training for women journalists, attention to teachers, and job creation through the safeguarding and promotion of culture were among the areas where UNESCO’s present and potential role were highlighted.  With support from the Asian Development Bank, UNESCO will also be expanding its work on Technical and Vocational Education and Training in Afghanistan, a vital need in a country where over 60 percent of the population is under age 25.

Throughout her visit to the country, the Director-General repeatedly stressed that UNESCO and the entire UN system would stand by Afghanistan after 2014 to accompany its Decade of Transformation.