Swaziland is establishing a local branch of the UN-supported Global Campaign for Education in an effort to improve the kingdom's schools and curriculum.
"Our goal is to provide free and quality education to all Swazis - to all children, of course - but also to Swazi women, to correct an historical imbalance," Evart Dlamini, acting administrator for the campaign told IRIN.
The Global Campaign for Education has the backing of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and is comprised of teachers' unions and education-oriented NGOs in participating countries. Dlamini is an official of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, which is spearheading the national campaign in partnership with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), the Swaziland Council of Churches, and the Swaziland branch of Women and Law in Southern Africa.
"We are planning public marches to highlight the need for better education and the inclusion of all children in schools," said Dlamini.
The campaign will be taken to parliament next month, with a special session dedicated to the subject of universal free education. School children will testify before lawmakers about the havoc caused by disruptions in their scholastic careers due to lack of funds for school fees and the deaths of parents or caregivers who had been supporting them. Children who have dropped out of school entirely because of financial problems will also plead their case to MPs.
"The situation has gotten dire because of AIDS. If you look at the upward curve of school attendance in primary and secondary institutions since national independence [in 1968], you see a growth in numbers corresponding to a proliferation of schools. But then a sharp decline happened in recent years, which has to be attributable to AIDS," said an official with the Ministry of Education.
"Ninety percent of children [of school-going age] were enrolled in primary school 10 years ago. Today, the number is down to 70 percent - a big step backward," Dr Derek von Wissell, chairman of the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS told IRIN.
The education ministry has a two-pronged plan to address children in danger of having their schooling cut short because financial support ends when parents die of AIDS.
Last year the government allocated R18 million (US $2.7 million) to keep children already attending school in class when they became financially endangered. The programme continues this year, with an added R20 million ($3 million) to allow children who have dropped out because of AIDS in the family to re-enrol.
"Once a child has left school, it is often hard to bring them back in. There is an age disparity between the child and others in his or her grade, which can be disruptive in the class. For this reason, we are considering special schools for children whose education has been disrupted," said an official with the education campaign.
These schools, to be established in community centres, will also provide education opportunities for Swazi women, as well as adult literacy courses.
The campaign is headquartered at the teachers' union building in the central commercial town of Manzini, and will play a role in holding government to its commitment to education, and expanding that commitment with additional resources.
"Today we learned that the army is being given R24 million ($3.6 million) for soldiers' food, which is 25 percent more money than is being spent to put AIDS orphans and vulnerable children back in school. Swaziland has absolutely no need for an army, and we cannot afford to give up on our future, our children. Educators must insist that government establish some priorities," said a Manzini primary school teacher who asked that her name not be used.
Minister of Education Constance Simelane said the government was heeding the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC), and had registered 10,000 OVC in their communities for financial assistance. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 OVC in Swaziland.
Education comprises 25 percent of government spending in the national budget announced by finance minister Majozi Sithole last week. The largest slice, 44 percent, goes to the salaries of government workers, the police and army.
Educationalists agree that Swaziland's pool of teachers is endangered because of AIDS and the lure of higher salaries across the border in South Africa, but there is no proposal to address the loss. The education campaign, spearheaded by the teachers' union, feels that better equipped and more secure schools may act as compensation for the lower salaries Swazi teachers receive, compared to their colleagues in South Africa.
"Our schools are in terrible shape, literally falling apart. We need a massive influx of funding to upgrade infrastructure. The emphasis on putting all children in school obscures the reality that there must be decent schools, enough classrooms, for the children," said Dot Matsebula, a primary school teacher in the capital, Mbabane.