Swazi orphans face education crisis

SWAZILAND: Swazi orphans face education crisis


HIV/AIDS has left many children orphaned

MBABANE, 29 Apr 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - Government and social welfare NGOs are seeking ways to offset a pending education crisis for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) after school heads resolved this week to bar those unable to pay fees.

Education Minister Constance Simelane ordered school principals to admit OVC in January, and promised to provide for the orphans' fees. The directive was controversial, with some education authorities and media pundits doubting government's ability to find and expeditiously release funding for fees as well as other needs, like uniforms and textbooks.

Swazi schools are set to reopen in less than two weeks and heads have noted that the promised funds have not been forthcoming.

"Parents struggle to pay their children's fees, and it is unfair for them to assume the burden of orphans because government has not lived up to its commitments," said the Swaziland School Head Teachers Association in a statement.

The controversy highlights the challenge posed by Swaziland's growing population of children who have lost both parents to AIDS, as well as children considered to be at extreme health and social risk because of the illhealth of the family breadwinner.

"Government doesn't have the resources that are needed. It's a matter of making appeals to the international community, and using what funds we receive imaginatively," an official with the finance ministry told IRIN.

The head teachers' association noted that "as heads of schools we feel the ministry owes parents and the general public an explanation on the fact that there may not be enough money to cater for all OVCs".

A special Lilangeni 20 million (US $3 million) fund for OVC's educational needs was included in this year's government budget. Parliament has yet to pass the budget, but the finance minister is free to release the first quarter of the funds, Lilangeni 5 million (US $752,445), at his discretion.

"We are confident that monies will be available on time," Thandi Gama, an official with the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), told IRIN.

The head teachers also complained that government's allotment for OVCs was insufficient: Lilangeni 400 (US $60) per primary school pupil, and Lilangeni 1,500 (US $225) per secondary school pupil.

The school heads had understood that bursary amounts would depend on fees charged by particular schools, which at urban public schools can be twice that of rural schools, and four times as high in private secondary schools.

"We all want to see an education system that works, but we also want to see an education system that supports justice and equality in society. We hope the head teachers association can rethink its position, and see themselves as partners and leaders in this crisis, and not look at this as business as usual," said Dr Alan Brody, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Country Representative.

Brody felt that because of the wide disparity in school fees, private schools should provide bursaries to OVC, and not expect government to shoulder the entire burden. "This is a shared responsibility," said Brody.

About 20,000 children are expected to be added to Swaziland's population of AIDS orphans annually, with 120,000 orphans projected by 2010, when the national population could be less than 900,000, according to UNICEF estimates.

NERCHA director Dr Derek Von Wissell told IRIN that funding for OVC's education would remain a perennial problem until universal education was provided in Swaziland. "We need free education here. That will end the problem," he said.

A portion of US $7 million in Global Fund monies sought for this year's national AIDS programmes would be distributed by NERCHA to NGOs and community organisations dealing with orphans, an area Von Wissell said was underfunded.

The development of younger children was particularly critical, he noted. "We will be training foster mothers, and facilitate programmes targeting orphan aid in four areas: economic empowerment, which is primarily getting orphans an education; food; psychosocial support; and socialisation - teaching life skills to children who literally don't know how to wipe their butts because there is no one around to show them these basics," said Von Wissell.

The Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has called for its grants to be used for a "revitalisation of traditional feeding structures".

Global Fund grants were used last year to plant 194 fields whose harvests, brought in by community volunteers, were used for OVCs. This year 324 fields have been planted for OVCs, and are expected to produce harvests despite drought conditions throughout the country.


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