30 June 2009Syria has made advances in achieving globally agreed development targets related to women and children, but still faces challenges in ensuring quality education, according to the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Syria has made advances in achieving globally agreed development targets related to women and children, but still faces challenges in ensuring quality education, according to the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).“Syria is recognizing the critical importance of investing in children and adolescents,” Ann M. Veneman said during the first-ever visit of a UNICEF Executive Director to the country. “Yet challenges remain including ensuring quality education, providing opportunities for youth and addressing the impact of drought,” she added.According to UNICEF, Syria has made significant progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the set of anti-poverty targets world leaders have pledged to try to achieve by 2015. For example, under-five mortality decreased from 37 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 17 in 2007, and more than 90 per cent of primary age children are now attending school. At the same time, a number of challenges remain. Some 4 per cent of children aged five to 14 are involved in child labour and 13 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they reached 18.In addition, malnutrition is a concern, with 22 per cent of children less than five years old suffering from stunting. Many children also face violence in homes and schools.While in Damascus, Ms. Veneman met with President Bashar Al Assad, First Lady Asma Akhras Al Assad, Government ministers and representatives of key non-governmental organizations (NGOs).During the trip, she visited water projects, programmes promoting entrepreneurship among children and young people, and a UNICEF-supported community health centre for women serving Iraqi refugees. Syria hosts over 1 million refugees from neighbouring Iraq, according to estimates by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNICEF is working with its partners to help the country meet the needs of Iraqi refugee women and children, including by setting up adolescent and child-friendly spaces to provide psycho-social support, learning opportunities and life skills.