UNESCO hosted an International Conference on the Right to Education in Crisis-Affected Countries: "Stop jeopardizing the future of Iraq"

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On October 30, 2008, UNESCO hosted a two-day conference at its Paris Head Quarters on the critical need to assist Iraq through addressing the plight faced by Iraqi children, students and educators, and to mobilize international support for the rehabilitation of the education system and raising awareness of the key challenges and needs, to define the way forward.

The event gathered more than 200 participants including an important delegation of Iraqi officials, presidents of universities, teachers, and civil society representatives. Senior representatives of other key partners from UN Agencies, the World Bank, the European Commission, NGOs and members of the academic community in Iraq and worldwide were also in attendance. Former United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the President of the Parliamentary Education Committee of Iraq, Dr Alaa Makki made a keynote address at the conference's closing ceremony.

The conference was attended by special guests, including Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned of Qatar, UNESCO Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education, who played a vital role in setting up the International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq in 2003 and in mobilizing international support for Iraq. Also present, Baroness Nicholson, Chairperson of the Amar Foundation with whom UNESCO has been collaborating closely in Iraq in such key areas as peace education and adult literacy.

Over the past two decades the education sector in Iraq was greatly weakened and "access to quality basic education has become a major issue, with low and declining enrolment rates at every level", UNESCO Director-General, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura told the attendance in his opening remarks. This is due to several factors including but not limited to insecurity, child labour, and distance from schools, lack of adequate learning facilities, in addition to the lack of skilled professors, and a shortage of material and equipment.

Another pressing concern is to provide education to the internally displaced and refugee students, most of whom lack access to education and for which UNESCO and the Iraqi Ministry of Education have recently launched the "Distance Learning Project", through TV broadcasting of educational programs.

Today, less than 60% of primary school-aged children are attending school. The ratio for secondary education is below 50%, while girls, particularly in rural areas, are the most affected at both levels.

In addition, and according to a UNESCO study in 2007, over 280 academics have been killed since 2003, including 186 university professors. Some 6,700 educators have fled Iraq, the vast majority of who have not returned.

At the conference, "five key areas have been identified where the international community must reinforce its support to national education efforts in Iraq", Koichiro Matsuura said. These are access to basic education, thoroughly rebuild the Iraqi higher education sector, protection of Iraqi intellectuals, academics, teachers, students and educational institutions, as an absolute moral priority, special provision for education of internally displaced students and support to governments of nations hosting Iraqi refugees, notably Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to help refugee children enroll at school in their countries of asylum, he explained.

Discussions during the working group sessions enabled the participants to commonly define a set of recommendations that will be the basis of future actions/projects to be implemented with the support of the donors.

"UNESCO committed itself to do all it can to support Iraq and to bring the education needs of the country to the attention of the international community", the organisation's Director-General concluded, expressing his "delight to join (its) efforts with those of Iraqi institutions, other multilateral agencies and the many NGOs active in the country".

Education remains the major area of UNESCO assistance to Iraq and the organization is the deputy leader of the Education Sector in UNAMI. Assistance focuses on overall support to the reform of the system, increasing access to quality education and learning for vulnerable students, especially internally displaced and refugees.