14 September 2007Challenging security conditions are impeding relief workers’ efforts to assess and meet humanitarian needs in remote areas in Afghanistan’s south, south-east and east, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The UN mission in the Asian nation, known as UNAMA, is facing difficulties in reaching areas to verify casualties or carry out humanitarian activities, with all 53 districts in the south – except the urban areas of four of the five provincial capitals – being virtually unreachable.OCHA also noted that both sides to the conflict are contributing to the problem. In addition, it said that continuing military operations against anti-Government groups could lead to more attacks on “softer” targets, such as the UN, and national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and there has already been a surge in kidnappings of aid workers.Meanwhile, at a UN-backed workshop in the capital Kabul, a three-year plan to promote girls’ education was developed.“To improve the situation of girls’ education in Afghanistan, it is imperative that the country develops focused interventions and addresses the barriers that prevent girls from attending schools,” said Catherine Mbengue, Representative in Afghanistan for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).More than 50 representatives from Government ministries, UN agencies, NGOs and research organizations attended the workshop, which was set up by UNICEF and the Education Ministry in collaboration with the Girls’ Education Initiative Working Group.The education plan tries to accelerate girls’ enrolment by promoting girl-friendly schools, providing nutrition services, training female teachers and teaching girls currently not attending school.During the time of the Taliban, girls were not allowed to officially register in schools, and Government figures show that no girls were enrolled in 2001 in Afghanistan, which is now rebuilding after three decades of conflict.Girls’ enrolment in schools has surged in the past five years. But boys still outnumber them two to one at the primary school level, while there are three times as many boys as girls at the lower secondary level and four times at the higher secondary level.In a related development, best-selling author and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Envoy Khaled Hosseini, wrapped up a 10-day tour of northern Afghanistan with a warning that the international community must maintain its efforts to help the country.“Afghanistan is at a crossroads,” he said. “There are some signs of disillusionment both in Afghanistan and within the international community. But a long-term engagement is absolutely critical if the country is to continue moving in the right direction.”The author and his family left Afghanistan in 1976, seeking asylum four years later in the United States, and his new novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is an account of two women over the span of three decades in the war-torn country.During this trip, the author, who is also a qualified medical doctor, visited UNHCR project sites and met with returnees in the northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, Balkh, Parwan and Kabul.“We are rebuilding our lives but we need help,” a village elder told Mr. Hosseini in Dharkhat in Baghlan province. “We get our drinking water from a village across the river. This often makes us sick. And when we get sick we cannot see doctors or get medicine.”The Goodwill Ambassador noted that in spite of improvements, the refugees faced much many more hurdles than he had anticipated. “There are of course signs of progress but many are frustrated at the slow pace of change and difficult living conditions,” he said. “Homelessness, landlessness and lack of jobs continue to be major problems.”Despite the hardships faced by many Afghans, Mr. Hosseini said that he was buoyed by their hopeful attitudes.“Afghan people are by their nature optimistic and resourceful and they continue to believe that the future holds better things for them,” he said.