UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan: There's progress with inclusive education

UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan: There's progress with inclusive education Report's interview with UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan Alex Heikens
Education and science
February 15, 2022 12:20
UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan:  There's progress with inclusive education

Report's interview with UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan Alex Heikens

- How do you assess Azerbaijan's Millennium Goals achievements in education?

-There's good progress in Azerbaijan's Millennium Goals achievements in the educational field. There are some good results to report over the number of children going to preschool education; there's also the development of inclusive education. There are, of course, more challenges ahead, both new and existing ones. There's a need to scale up the access to preschool education, especially in the districts.

Also, there's progress with inclusive education, but the numbers are still small. If you look back at 2016, when we started to get involved, four schools started offering inclusive education, last year, eight schools were added to that list, which is great progress. The challenge now is to really take it to scale in schools across the country. Another important topic is the quality and the relevance of education: how do we make a better connection between education and employability.

- What's UNICEF's contribution to Azerbaijan's achievement of Millennium Goals in the educational field?

-It's been a good combination of technical assistance and piloting, developing new models, as well as trying them out together with the government. In 2017 UNICEF started piloting preschool learning centers in only 50 early learning center and people quickly realized how beneficial it is for children. Over the years, the government, together with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and further support of the EU, took it to scale, and now the number exceeds 700 centers.

- Girls' education is still a very urgent problem all over the world. How does UNICEF contribute to settling the issue of girls' education in Azerbaijan?

- On one hand, it's great to see almost every child going to school, but in teenage years there are some drops out, which I hear is more typical for girls than boys. Keeping the girls at school is so important. When you look at science, engineering, technology, and math, girls in secondary school are doing very good at that. I remember when I visited Agjabadi, one of the things that teachers told me is that girls are even doing better in these subjects than boys. However, at the university, girls don't continue in that direction. They start to move towards humanity, social studies, and others. Girls have so much potential but move away from what they are so good at. The question is, why? One of the reasons could be the expectations for girls within society, family, and others, saying that the girls should be in education, health, social sciences, and others. Yes, there's space for that, of course, but there's also space for girls in other sciences. This would create additional potential for the girls, the country, and even the economy.

Another problem is that many of the girls don't enter the workforce once they graduate. So, you have made this very big investment in learning for many years, you're very smart, bright, well-educated, and then you don't do anything with it. In the big cities, there's a somewhat different, more open attitude than in the countryside. The leadership from women, as well as the appreciation for that, is important. Work with the private sector for making the case for more women in these functions should also take place. Of course, women play a very important role in their families, and at the same time, they have so much more to offer than that.

As UNICEF, we support the whole trajectory as much as we can. We're now starting a new initiative in the context of the digital skills for girls and basic life skills program really actively involving girls in that. We should not only be looking only at the academic learning of girls and boys but also their social, emotional learning so that they are better prepared when moving into adulthood. So those things UNICEF supports both in formal and informal learning at the policy and practical levels.

- How does UNICEF promote inclusive education in Azerbaijan?

What I found really fascinating when I arrived here was hearing the story of how inclusive education has evolved here. I visited one of the first four schools where they started having children with disabilities in the regular classes with UNICEF's support. UNICEF worked closely with the school management, teachers and parents of the children that were already at school to show that it was actually beneficial for everybody to open the doors for children with disabilities. Recently, I met with the minister of education, and he expressed his strong commitment to this issue which I greatly appreciate. In the beginning, parents of children without disabilities were reluctant to have their children in the same class, but now it's almost the other way around: they understand the value of their children in the same class because it also helps shaping the social behavior and norms of their own children in a positive manner. My team and I are really looking forward to helping the country take it to the next level.

- What's UNICEF's position regarding the COVID-19 vaccination for kids?

The global position is, first of all, to make sure that the most vulnerable in society are fully vaccinated. Now we have already entered the era of booster shots. We're in a relatively good position in Azerbaijan: there are sufficient vaccines available, a lot of progress has been made, there's no competition for vaccines within society, there are enough vaccines for everybody. We also know that there're some of the vaccines approved for kids 12 years and up, and there's ongoing work to approve the vaccines for even lower ages. Looking at the importance of not only protecting health but also reducing the community transmissions in the Azerbaijani context, it makes sense to also promote vaccination of 12 years and older children. We have the vaccines available. There's no reason for not doing it. Children are not at the highest risk in terms of their health, but they could be a carrier. Even without knowing it, they can transfer it to for example their grandmother, who is at higher risk. I believe it is good at this point in time to really promote and facilitate the vaccination of 12 years and older. The evidence is clear that vaccination reduces transmissions. It is also important to make the process not too complicated for parents to have their children vaccinated.

- War leaves an incurable mark in the hearts of children, because they are usually more sensitive to what is happening. Since UNICEF works to protect the rights of every child in Azerbaijan, how will it contribute to the rights of Azerbaijani refugee kids and the peace of their safe returning back to their homes, liberated areas?

-This is, of course, always a very challenging process. We know from the experiences around the world in a post-conflict situation that there are a lot of things that need to be done before even accommodating the return of people - it needs to be safe. I really appreciate the big effort that ANAMA is making in this context with the support of the developing partners to make Karabakh safe from landmines and other explosive devices. It is also important to include the communities in discussions about the future. What can be done to make these villages an example of a safe environment for children not only in terms of being secure from explosive devices but from every type of risk? Also, we will continue our work on explosive ordnance risks education because there's a continuous need to inform people, especially children, about the risks or explosive ordnances.. There's an ongoing initiative from UNICEF with funding from The Emergency Children's Help Organization "ECHO" and implemented together with the Ministry of Education and ANAMA, which is about understanding how the community is looking at risks and then starting to develop learning materials and training approaches to inform the communities. An important strategy that we're applying here is to work through the schools. It is the teachers at schools who explain to kids all the risks. But you need to engage the community as a whole in this process: the children, the parents, the community leaders all together work on it. And finally, it's important to work on the mental well-being of children. We know that many children and parents have been traumatized because of the conflict. UNICEF continues to support a number of children and parents with psychosocial support services.

- In order to organize a safe return to home, the entire Karabakh has to be demined. Does UNICEF plan to contribute to this process or encourage other organizations to do so?

-Demining, of course, is led by ANAMA. From the UN side, it is UNDP that supports specifically demining providing very important technical assistance to ANAMA. UNICEF focuses on supporting the risk education around land mines and other explosive ordnances. Demining and learning about the risks of mines need to be one approach, so collaboration and coordination is essential. Obviously, we encourage whoever is able to support demining financially or technically to do that, and we continue to look for resources to expand the education around the risks of explosive ordnances as well.

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