- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Now that it has become quite clear that there will be no peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, can we find common ground in another cause? Don't young children, particularly those living in war-torn areas, deserve to go to school? At least grade school? Wouldn't you rather they go to a secular school than, say, religious schools that foster hate, bigotry and terrorism?
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, understands how important education is for peace and stability in that war-ravaged section of the globe.
Look at some numbers and perhaps you, too, will come to understand, if you don't already, what's really and truly happening on the education front in poorer nations.
Let's first pop into classrooms in the Middle East and North Africa, where UNICEF has gathered some data:
n In Sudan and Dijibouti, less than 50 percent of boys and girls are enrolled in or attending school. In that area of the world, some numbers are much higher than even the regional average (81 percent), thanks to places such as the occupied Palestinian terrority (94 percent) and Syria (99 percent). So it's truly disgraceful when Dijibouti's rate is a pitiful 33 percent.
Now let's look at South Asia, where both the gender gap and and the overall school-enrollment rates are abysmal.
n In Afghanistan, attendance rate stood at 24 percent, and in Pakistan things were a little better at 46 percent. That region's average (71 percent) was largely boosted by Maldives (98 percent) and Sri Lanka (90 percent).
Of course, since September 11 you're probably become familiar with the Taliban's no-school-girl rule, and the one that prohibited women from venturing into public without benefit of a male escort. Well, accordingly, UNICEF is concerned about three regions in particular. Sub-Saharan has a 57 percent to 63 percent enrollment of girls vs. boys. In South Asia, things are a little higher, with 68 percent to 74 percent. And the best of the three is the Mideast-North Africa region, which is 77 percent girls vs. 84 percent boys.
The war in the Mideast and South Asia, however, provides some hope that those percentages will rise, and the children and their parents are thrilled. Just the other day, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy talked with editorial writers for this newspaper about the delight of one grade-school girl in Afghanistan, who, the night before the first day of school, which was March 23, opened and organized and then reopened and reorganized, her UNICEF-provided bag of school goodies four times. Mrs. Bellamy says that, while UNICEF used to help Afghan mothers home-school their children, UNICEF has since provided thousands of tents for classrooms, as well as books and other classroom tools.
Such resources are often taken for granted in other nations where fanaticisms dominate or how else would rhetoric and propaganda flourish? On the other hand, we know what happens when formal and secular education are not available. The prospects for true democracy and freedom are nil and replaced with paranoid rulers who rule often with religious fervor.
That's why it is important that we continue to press UNICEF which has a billion-dollar budget, one-tenth of it American tax dollars and the World Bank.
See, you, dear readers, are static and sometimes bigoted. When someone says help the Palestinian children, you call them anti-Semitic. When someone says helps the children of Israel, you call them anti-Arab. Shame on you for being so ignorant and bigoted and dare I say paranoid.
You sound, sometimes, like those lefties and nincompoops who waste time and money running around the globe protesting the policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and I am certain there are some of you right now who reading my column and saying or thinking the same about me. Fine. To each his own.
But, as I said in the very beginning. We will never have peace in the Mideast. So why not turn our collective attention to something that we know works and has lasting political benefits?
At any rate, this recent incarnation of global literacy was spawned at the 1990 World Summit for Children, and its goals and where things now stand can be viewed on the web (www.unicef.org). Also, there is another meeting of those partners later this month in New York. That is one of the reasons we sat down with Mrs. Bellamy, and that is one reason why I chose to exhale on this issue at this particular time. Another reason is because next time this week I plan to be in Uganda with other members of the media, where the World Bank will give us a tour of educational and health programs going on there. So I'll report back to you on what I see firsthand.
The other reason I am writing is fairly obvious. The die is cast on U.S.-Palestiniain-Israeli relations. So, I say let us focus on the children and literacy.
After all, the only reason Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat have been allowed to lead their respective peoples for so many decades is because they are educated.
Peace out, and God bless.

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