UNESCO and UNICEF call for building strong foundations for health and well-being in primary school


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At a global symposium organized in Lusaka today, UNESCO and UNICEF launched four co-published technical briefs as part of Building strong foundations – a new initiative by UNESCO that aims to help children stay in school, keep safe, and grow up healthy to lead thriving lives.

The new initiative benefitting learners aged 5-12 in primary school was launched at an international symposium in Lusaka, Zambia, in the presence of Felix Mutati, Zambia’s Minister of Technology and Science and acting Minister of Education, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant-Director General for Education, Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s Director, Education and Adolescent Development, and moderated by Lulu Hangala Wood, UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador.

“We know that children who receive good quality education are more likely to be healthy, and those who are healthy are better able to learn. But more robust action and investment are needed, starting early on in primary school. This period of life is a window of opportunity to build a sound understanding of health and well-being, and strong foundations for the future,” said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant-Director General for Education.

The new initiative aims to ensure that all children receive foundational education that not only equips them with basic literacy and numeracy skills, but also lays the foundation for health, well-being, and social development for life while having positive effects on learners’ grades, test scores, attendance, and homework completion.

Putting the initiative into practice

Under the banner Building strong foundations, the joint technical briefs provide evidence-based guidance to ministries of education, curriculum developers, policymakers, school management, educators, and other stakeholders.

“Every child deserves to learn, grow, and thrive in a safe environment. The school is a key entry point to fulfill the holistic needs of a child, including nutrition, health, psychosocial and other critical development needs beyond education,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Director, Education and Adolescent Development. “Interventions during the early years of a child’s life have an incredible long-term impact, laying the foundation for lifelong success in the education system and beyond.”

While 87% of children globally now attend and complete primary education, it is not enough. The status quo would leave 15 million children aged 6-11 behind in sub-Saharan Africa alone, none of whom would ever go to school. That represents 9 million girls (23%) and 6 million boys (19%) according to UNESCO data. Globally, between 35% and 65% of girls do not have adequate knowledge or understanding of menstruation when they start their menstrual cycle.

The East and Southern Africa region has one of the world’s highest rates of adolescent pregnancy with 1 in 5 girls becoming pregnant before the age of 20. HIV also remains a challenge in the region with 930,000 children aged 0 to 14 living with HIV, and 58,000 new yearly infections. By reaching learners early, prevention of new HIV infections and treatment opportunities can increase.

Corporal punishment is prevalent in some Sub-Saharan communities. And more than eight out of ten children aged 1-14 said they had experienced violent discipline in the form of psychological aggression or physical punishment at home in the past month. Providing a safe and trusted environment is critical for learners’ full participation and development at school and to safeguard their lives and future.

“Primary school education is paramount for children’s development and fulfillment. It is during these formative years that children acquire essential literacy and numeracy skills. To effectively nurture these skills, it is crucial to approach early year’s numeracy and literacy in a fun, engaging, and age-appropriate manner,” said Felix Mutati, Minister of Technology and Science, and acting Minister of Education, Zambia.

Building strong foundations means taking care of one’s own health, and other people’s health, now and into the future – from better protection from violence to fostering healthy and respectful relationships, civic engagement, gender equality, and inclusive practices and behaviours.

Launching the Building strong foundations initiative in Lusaka builds on UNESCO’s regional work in education for health and well-being through the Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future (O3) programme, which is currently the largest programme supporting education for health and well-being of children, adolescents and young people running across 33 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It harnesses the power of intersectoral coordination between education and health sectors to improve sexual and reproductive health, gender, and education outcomes for young people. Over 20 million learners were reached in 2023 by teachers who were trained or benefited from UNESCO support under the O3 Programme. More information can be found here: https://www.unesco.org/en/health-education/o3-programme.

For UNICEF, this work builds on a solid record of supporting integrated school health programmes in all the countries where it operates, as an enabler for effective enrolment, participation, and outcomes.

Resources and more information can be found here: Stepping up effective school health and nutrition.

These efforts align with the Eastern and Southern African Ministerial Commitment on Sexuality Education and Sexual and Reproductive Health Services for Adolescents and Young People, known as the ESA Commitment, endorsed in 2013 by ministers of health and education from 21 countries and reaffirmed in December 2021.


With 194 Member States, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization contributes to peace and security by leading multilateral cooperation on education, science, culture, communication and information. Headquartered in Paris, UNESCO has offices in 54 countries and employs over 2300 people. UNESCO oversees more than 2000 World Heritage sites, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks; networks of Creative, Learning, Inclusive and Sustainable Cities; and over 13 000 associated schools, university chairs, training and research institutions. Its Director-General is Audrey Azoulay.

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed” – UNESCO Constitution, 1945.

More information: www.unesco.org


UNICEF promotes the rights and well-being of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org.