School gates close on orphans

Thamie Simelane, 12, is among hundreds of thousands of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in Swaziland who might not be going to school, despite government assurances that the tuition fees of these children would be covered.

Headmasters rely on school fees to run their institutions, but limited government funds have materialised sporadically, often forcing schools to start sending children home.

This year the education ministry again assured headmasters that adequate funds would be forthcoming and urged them to admit legitimate OVC into their schools. The government's master plan is to provide free universal education to all children through Grade 5.

In a country with a declining economy and no property tax base to draw from to fund local schools, the challenge is daunting. The education budget for 2008 is US$8.5 million, augmented by donations from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), whose material and other assistance to schools is intended for all children, including OVC.

"Government needs more revenues, and in the absence of that she must adjust spending priorities," commented Sipho Matsebula, an economist at a bank in the capital, Mbabane. "Right now there is pressure to raise government spending on health to 15 percent of the budget, and even with a national health crisis going on that seems unobtainable." UNAIDS estimates the HIV prevalence rate in Swaziland at 33.4 percent.

Five years ago, when UNICEF predicted that by 2010 there would be 120,000 AIDS orphans in need of scholarships and other educational assistance, the government set up financial aid schemes. UNICEF now says that within two years an even greater number - 150,000 orphans and vulnerable children under the age of 15 - in a declining national population of less than one million people, will need help.

Part of the problem is that there are no standardised school fees, which means some children pay twice the amount. Standardising school fees, advocated by some educationalists, would bring down the higher costs and allow more children to benefit from the limited funds available.

Some schools make students pay a "stationery fee", even though government provides all children with free textbooks, while other schools require OVC to buy school uniforms, which include expensive jerseys (sweater) embossed with a school logo. UNICEF, among other children's agencies, have called for a standardised school uniform.

“It is not easy for any child to go to school in Swaziland. Parents are always scrambling to find a place for their kids in schools close to home. Some of the new private schools are shady, and all are expensive. The OVC tend to get overlooked simply because there is so much chaos in the education system. The teachers themselves are insecure. Many are contract teachers, and they don’t know whether they will be employed by the education ministry in January when they go for holiday breaks in December,” said Thab’sile Dlamini, a primary school teacher in the central commercial town of Manzini.

Neighbourhood Care Points

Often the only opportunity for schooling available to OVCs has been at the neighbourhood Care Points, a UNICEF innovation where the children also receive at least one hot meal a day, supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP).

"We provide some rudimentary schooling to kids, such as basic math and reading, but this is really part of a socialisation process to get the kids together and out of their isolation at home - some come from child-headed households," said Abigail Dlamini, a volunteer teacher at the Ngwane Park Neighbourhood Care Point in the central commercial town of Manzini.

"We are not a school, even though we have a fully equipped classroom. Our most valuable service is to identify OVC in the community to get them into proper schools."

Relatives and social welfare groups manage to help some children attend school, but others, like Simelane, keep falling through the cracks in the government's promises. "At school, I think they have forgotten about me," lamented Simelane.

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