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Taliban’s backtracking on girls’ education, ‘deeply damaging’

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Girls at school in Herat, Afghanistan. © UNICEF/Sayed Bidel

Following a U-turn over re-opening girls’ secondary schools in Afghanistan on Wednesday, the UN human rights chief shared her “profound frustration and disappointment” that six months after the Taliban seized power, high school girls have yet to return to the classroom.

“The de facto authorities’ failure to adhere to commitments to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade – in spite of repeated commitments towards girls’ education, including during my visit to Kabul two weeks ago – is deeply damaging for Afghanistan”, High Commissioner  Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

‘Grave concern’

Although high schools were set to open their doors to girls nationwide, Taliban authorities reportedly reversed the move early on Wednesday, pending a ruling made on the uniforms they must wear.

“The denial of education violates the human rights of women and girls – beyond their equal right to education, it leaves them more exposed to violence, poverty and exploitation,” Ms. Bachelet explained.

Move jeopardizes Afghanistan’s future: Guterres

The UN Secretary-General said in a statement later in the day, that he deeply regretted the Taliban’s suspension of the return to school for high school girls.

“The start of the new school year has been anticipated by all students, girls and boys, and parents and families”, said António Guterres. He added that the Taliban move “despite repeated commitments, is a profound disappointment and deeply damaging for Afghanistan.

The denial of education not only violates the equal rights of women and girls to education, it also jeopardizes the country’s future in view of the tremendous contributions by Afghan women and girls.    

  “I urge the Taliban de facto authorities to open schools for all students without any further delay.” 

Recounting conversations

Ms. Bachelet recalled her recent visit to Kabul, where women stressed to her that they wanted to speak to the Taliban themselves.

The women told her that they have “information, solutions and the capability to help chart a way out of this economic, humanitarian and human rights crisis in Afghanistan.”

“They insisted upon the equal right to quality education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels and were hopefully awaiting the reopening of schools today”.

‘Structural discrimination’

As Afghan citizens suffer the impacts of multiple intersecting crises, the senior UN official described the decision as being of “grave concern.”

Disempowering half of Afghanistan’s population is counterproductive and unjust,” Ms. Bachelet said, adding that “structural discrimination such as this is also deeply damaging for the country’s prospects of future recovery and development.”

She called on the Taliban to “respect all girls’ rights to education and to open schools for all students without discrimination or further delay”.

Shattered hopes

The Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund, Catherine Russell, also issued a statement describing the decision as “a major setback for girls and their futures”.

“Millions of secondary-school girls around Afghanistan woke up hopeful today that they will be able to go back to school and resume their learning,” she said.

“It did not take long for their hopes to be shattered.”

According to Ms. Russell the decision meant that an entire generation of adolescent girls is being “denied their right to an education and…robbed of the opportunity to gain the skills they need to build their futures.”

She urged the de facto authorities to honour their commitment to girls’ education without any further delay and appealed to community leaders in every corner of the country to support the education of adolescent girls.

All children deserve to be in school. This is the surest way to put the country on a surer path toward the peace and prosperity that the people of Afghanistan deserve,” said the UNICEF chief.

Decision deplored

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) responded to the news, by tweeting that it “deplores today’s reported announcement by the Taliban that they are further extending their indefinite ban on female students above the 6th grade being permitted to return school.”

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UNICEF urges leaders to keep schools safe following deadly Texas shooting

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Governments must take greater action to ensure school remains a safe place for boys and girls, the head of the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said on Wednesday, following the latest deadly school shooting in the United States. 

At least 19 children and two teachers were killed on Tuesday when 18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos opened fire at Robb Elementary School in the small city of Uvalde, Texas, located near the border with Mexico. 

How many more? 

Catherine Russell, UNICEF’s Executive Director, said there have already been “horrific attacks” this year on schools in Afghanistan, Ukraine, the US, West Africa and beyond. 

“Tragedy after tragedy, shooting after shooting, young life after young life: how many more children will die before government leaders act to keep children and their schools safe? Because until they do, these horrors will continue,” she said in a statement. 

Ms. Russell emphasized that outside of their homes, school is the one place where children should feel safest. 

She noted that in addition to the lives lost, “many more children, teachers and school staff who witnessed the carnage will bear the emotional and psychological scars for the rest of their lives.” 

Shock and sadness 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres was deeply shocked and saddened by “the heinous mass shooting”, saying it was particularly heart-wrenching that most of the victims are children.  

Mr. Guterres has extended his heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and to the entire community, his Spokesperson said in a statement issued on Tuesday. 

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed expressed her outrage in a post on Twitter. 

“When children go to school, they should only be concerned about learning,” she wrote.  “Children should not go to school fearing for their lives!” 

Ms. Mohammed said her heartfelt prayers are with the families, classmates and teachers who are mourning this “devastating loss”. 

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Zimbabwean peacekeeper selected as UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year 2021 Award

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Following reports of sexual and gender-based violence against women collecting firewood in Rubkona, South Sudan, Captain Irene Wilson Muro and and Major Winnet Zharare (2nd from the right) reached out to local women to discuss ways to stem the abuse. Photo: UNMISS

A Zimbabwean peacekeeper who recently completed her assignment with the UN Mission in South Sudan, will receive the 2021 United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award. 

Military Observer Major Winnet Zharare, 39, served in Bentiu, South Sudan in 2021-2022, and will receive the award from the Secretary-General António Guterres during a ceremony marking the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on Thursday, 26 May 2022.

Created in 2016, the United Nations “Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award” recognizes the dedication and efforts of an individual military peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, as nominated by Heads and Force Commanders of UN peace operations.

Secretary-General António Guterres commended Major Winnet for her award. “Major Zharare is a role model and a trailblazer. Through her service, she has demonstrated the invaluable role that women play in building trust, advocating for change and forging peace,” he said. “Her example shows how we will all gain with more women at the decision-making table and gender parity in peace operations,” Mr. Guterres added. 

Major Zharare expressed her gratitude and pride in receiving  the award which, she said, “motivated [her] to maintain [her] course towards gender equality.”

“My parents gave us equal opportunities with my brothers, so I believe that equal opportunities should be given to both men and women in all aspects of life,” she added.

Major Winnet Zharare deployed to UNMISS in November 2020. Throughout her 17-month-long service, she advocated for gender parity and women’s participation, within her own ranks, among local military counterparts, and in host communities.

As the Chief Military Information Officer in UNMISS’  Bentiu field office, she helped ensure that patrols included both women and men to improve protection efforts as well as build trust between host communities and the Mission. Her efforts also contributed to an increase in  gender-aggregated data so that issues raised by local women and girls would gain appropriate attention.

Advocating for gender parity and womens’ participation in an environment where they are traditionally excluded from decision-making, she encouraged local civilian and military authorities and community representatives to involve both men and women in meetings with the UN. Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained her the trust of local military commanders who would systematically reach out to her on issues pertaining to women’s protection and rights. During her patrols and numerous community engagement initiatives, Major Zharare also successfully encouraged men and women to work together in farming and in the construction of dikes around Bentiu town to alleviate food shortages and prevent further displacement.

Major Zharare is the first Zimbabwean peacekeeper to receive this prestigious award.

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‘New dawn’ for Europe as War in Ukraine Strengthens EU and Support for Enlargement

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The European Union surprised the world, and even itself, with the speed, scale and unity of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This “new” Europe is ready to project both soft and hard power on the world stage, European leaders told participants at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.

Christine Lagarde, President, European Central Bank, on the panel at the session, European Unity in a Disordered World?, said the Ukraine war has revealed how powerful Europe is collectively: “This is a new dawn for Europe.”

The war on Ukraine has also revealed weaknesses – including global supply chain vulnerabilities and over-reliance on Russian energy, she said, but Europe is addressing this and can begin to flex its muscles on the global stage. “Europe has untapped purchasing power, trading power, technology power, pension power and moral power.”

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, reinforced the point. “This is Europe’s moment,” she said. “Europe can become the global project for peace.”

Mistakes of the past will be rectified, she said. “For way too long we did not seriously consider an energy union where we can rely on each other rather than on a country that can switch us off at any time.”

Referring to the EU’s support and defence of Ukraine, she was emphatic: “This is not the time to talk about face-saving for Russia or appeasement.”

Eduard Heger, Prime Minister of Slovakia, also on the panel, said: “If Ukraine falls to Russian aggression, Slovakia is next.” He added that we must continue to provide military support as well as step up humanitarian aid. “Above all we need to give Ukrainians hope.”

“Let’s not compromise – we must remain faithful to the values of the EU – freedom, rule of law, human dignity and equal rights.”

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, said of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “The people of Europe have spoken. Enough is enough.” In response there is much stronger unanimity between member states and more support than ever to accept the accession of new members.

He continued: “We see the EU’s future in terms of the green economy and in terms of the digitalization but also in terms of enlargement.”

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, called on European member states to continue to raise their defence spending. “The NATO alliance members are inseparable, but Europe must play its part,” he said. “This will help transform Europe from a soft power to a hard power.”

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