KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - Canada's outgoing military commander in Afghanistan says Canadian and NATO efforts there have helped save the lives of 40,000 children.
And Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant says that's a "conservative estimate."
In an interview with The Canadian Press at the multinational base in Kandahar, Grant said he's handing his successor, Brig.-Gen. Guy Laroche, a country more "confident" than it was a year ago.
"There's 40,000 babies in Afghanistan more this year than . . . last year," said Grant, whose return to Canada is days away. "That's a big number."
He attributes the success to improvements in health care, which has led to a drop in the region's infant mortality rate.
Grant says the international community helped put a vaccination program in place and increased access to doctors, particularly for women.
Meanwhile, even as Taliban activity remains prevalent in Kandahar province, the level of confidence has surged among the city's inhabitants, he said.
"The town was empty," Grant said of Kandahar 12 months ago. "Now you go there, (it's) like Kandahar City is a successful little town.
"The shops are open, kids going to school, people have gone back to a normal life. We see farmers have returned in large numbers, thousands of people have gone back to live in their homes."
Grant appears to be using numbers from a World Bank study but Save the Children isn't quite that optimistic:
* The average Afghan household’s monthly income is $6.
* Child and maternal malnutrition remains pervasive because many families do not understand basic good nutrition and unfortunately, poverty prevents the ones that do from providing healthy meals to their children and women of childbearing age.
* There is limited access to quality health care throughout the country. For every 1,000 Afghan children born, 165 die within the first year, and one quarter of all Afghan children die before their fifth birthdays – the vast majority from preventable diseases.
* Women have little access to reproductive health services; the maternal mortality rate for Afghan women is one of the world’s worst.
* Access to quality education is limited, especially in rural areas. Although an estimated 6 million children are enrolled in school, attendance is uneven and drop out rates are high. Many millions of children are not enrolled in school at all.
* Although landmine education programs have been very successful in helping prevent disability, maiming and death, Afghanistan is still one of the world’s most heavily mined countries.
And here's the latest reality check via UNICEF:
The United Nations Children's Fund is urgently appealing for $7 million for emergency assistance for tens of thousands of women and children in Afghanistan. UNICEF says a combination of insecurity, natural and man-made-disasters is putting many of Afghanistan's most vulnerable people at risk. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.
No time is a particularly good time for the people of Afghanistan. But, over the past six months, they have been going through a particularly difficult period.
The year started with a large number of early and unexpected flash floods that forced many people to leave their homes. The country continued to reel from other natural and man-made disasters such as heavy snowfalls, landslides, disease and, of course, armed conflict.
The U.N. Children's Fund reports the security situation in the country is deteriorating. It notes that fighting between the Taleban and Government and Coalition forces is spreading to more areas. It says civilians on both sides are victims of armed conflict. Thousands have been made homeless.
UNICEF Spokeswoman, Miranda Eeles, says as of May, about 41 percent of Afghanistan's districts have become no-go areas for the United Nations and this is hampering the delivery of aid.
"There are more than one-point-three million Afghan refugees living in Iran and a lot of those are being deported back to the country," Eeles said. "We also see an increase in school incidents and threats against students. We have pretty bad results when it comes to things like infant mortality rates. One child out of every four does not survive his or her fifth birthday. So, in general, it is not only the security situation, it is a whole host of problems that the country is experiencing."
UNICEF reports seven percent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition and 54 percent are chronically malnourished.
Eeles says two million children of primary school age are out of school. About 1.3 million of them are girls. She says parents are fearful of sending their children to school because of the many threats made against students and teachers. Girls have been especially targeted by the Taleban which believes girls should not have an education and that they should be at home.
"Thirty one attacks have been reported against schools in the first six months," Eeles said. "We have had schools being torched. There are also explosions and there have also been deliberate attacks on girl students and women teachers. This has resulted in at least four deaths and six injuries. In the four southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul, out of a total of 740 schools, it is estimated that around 262 of them are no longer providing education services to students."
The moral of this story: Always look beyond the sound bite numbers trotted out by military and government spokespeople from war zones.