As the country gears up to enrol over 5 million children in classes throughout 2004, the agency will begin its initiative by bringing together 60 imams, mullahs and other religious figures to the eastern city of Jalalabad where they will help develop messages and communication plans on a number of key issues.These include “girls’ education, women’s health, HIV/AIDS, immunization, nutrition and the protection of children from abuse and exploitation,” UNICEF spokesman Edward Carwardine told reporters in Kabul. The three-day workshop in Jalalabad will identify core messages around children’s issues, and through group work and discussions will develop effective methods for religious leaders to convey these messages to their communities. Mr. Carwardine explained that religious leaders “are a powerful force for change in Afghanistan, holding a position of great respect in communities.” He noted that Imams, who serve as social mobilizers and counsellors, “have in the past played an effective role in supporting campaigns around the issues of education and children’s health care.”UNICEF, which aims to increase girls’ enrolment in school by an additional 1 million female students by 2005, considers the religious community to be an essential partner in this effort. Led by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and with UNICEF’s support, a further 375 workshops are planned this year, covering every province and district. By the end of 2004, the agency hopes that 50,000 religious leaders will have taken part in the process.UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Sharad Sapra applauded the efforts being made by religious leaders to promote children’s rights. He said they demonstrate “the true face of Islam as a religion which believes in education for all and the well-being of women, while promoting the values of tolerance, understanding, peace and stability.” “By speaking out on children’s rights in such a constructive manner, the religious community in Afghanistan is an invaluable partner in helping meet the goal of universal education, improved women’s health and a stable and secure environment in which Afghanistan’s children can grow and develop,” he added.
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