January 12, 2004

School enrolments expected to decline

With schools reopening nationwide, teachers in Swaziland are concerned that a weakening economy and HIV/AIDS will affect the number of children enrolling for the 2004 academic year. "The problem is school fees - and it's not a new one. Parents scramble to come up with money for tuition, school uniforms, transportation, boarding and other fees. What is measurably worse this year is the number of parents who are out of work, and the growing population of children without parents," Alexander Tsabedze said, a headmaster in the northern Hhohho region. According to a nurse with the International Red Cross, stationed north of Manzini, "AIDS is taking away kids' parents. They are living with relatives, often grandparents, who can feed and perhaps clothe them, and put a sort of roof over their heads. But there is no available cash for school fees."

AIDS has pushed average Swazi life expectancy down from 46 years in 1989 to 39 years in 2003, according to the UN Development Programme. The National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS projects that out of a national population of about 900.000, by 2010 as many as 120.000 children under age 15 will have lost both parents to AIDS. Last year King Mswati III announced a R16 million (about US $2.5 million) fund to bring the neediest children, who had dropped out of school, back into the classroom. But educationalists have noted that relatively few poor children benefited, largely because the poor are concentrated in rural areas, and the fund is also being used for urban students. Alan Brody, country representative for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), noted: "School fees are so much higher in towns. Twenty children in the (eastern) Lubombo region could be educated for every child in Mbabane or Manzini. Resources have not been directed to where they can do the greatest good."

Teachers want the government to rethink how spending on education is allocated. Although tertiary education is free, there is no free education available for primary or secondary students. "This policy is for the benefit of those better-off in society - a subsidy for the rich to get a university education for their children, while the poor are charged for the basic primary education of their children," said Brody. (IRIN)

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