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School Fees Hike Fuels Dropout Rate

Children quit school in large numbers because they cannot afford rising tuition costs.
By IWPR Srdan
The recent massive hike in school fees in Zimbabwe have led to more children than ever dropping out of school, as parents find the higher payments beyond their means amid the continuing economic collapse.

After fees were hiked tenfold at most state schools for the second term, which began last month, many students had no option but to drop out as their parents no longer had the money to keep up the monthly payments.

From May, the parents of children at state primary schools in urban areas had to pay at least 2.5 million Zimbabwean dollars (25 US dollars) a term - ten times the amount they paid previously. Secondary schools are now charging ten million Zimbabwean dollars a term.

When the price hikes were announced, child rights organisations predicted that more pupils would drop out of school and many would resort to begging, prostitution or child labour just to survive.

"Inasmuch as people struggle to send their children to school even in these difficult circumstances, we have come to a point where people just want to give up," Leonard Nkala, former president of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, said at the time.

In Harare’s working class suburbs of Hatcliffe, Mbare, Kuwadzana, Dzivarasekwa, Kambuzuma and Epworth, schools are now losing pupils on a daily basis.

Linnia is an 11-year-old girl who was recently kicked out of school because her parents could no longer pay her fees. Dressed in a flimsy pink outfit that barely covered her in the short but harsh southern African winter, she told IWPR, "I would like to go back to school soon and join my classmates. I hope my parents will get the fees or someone can help pay."

Police and soldiers destroyed her family’s only source of income, a tiny carpentry shop in Mbare, in the ZANU-PF government’s Operation Murambatsvina (Drive out the rubbish). The operation, which began in May last year and is still continuing, was presented as a renewal scheme to clean up urban areas. However, critics say Murambatsvina had little to do with regeneration, but was instead a giant social engineering project to force troublesome urban communities of potential opposition supporters to relocate to the countryside, where Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has near-total control.

According to UNICEF programme assistant Joshua Mahachi, the United Nations agency has so far paid the fees of about 200 children who would otherwise have had to drop out of school. He said applications for fee support were pouring in and UNICEF's local office had insufficient funds to help everyone. So countless children like Linnia are seeing their dreams of an education evaporate.

Economic crisis, coupled with the departure of teachers to work abroad and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has killed thousands of school staff, is steadily eroding what was once reckoned the best education system in Africa. These days the majority of schools have no textbooks, stationery or chalk, let alone computers.

As recently as 2000, when the country's precipitous slide into penury began, school enrolment stood at 93 per cent, but the figure is now well below 50 per cent.

"Our job as teachers is like bricklayers expected to construct a house without being given the bricks," said Magdalene Ngwenyama, a teacher in a working class suburb of Bulawayo, whose school has just two textbooks per class for each subject.

When contacted for comment, Education Minister Aeneas Chigwedere admitted that the dropout rate was increasing, but he accused some schools of increasing their fees without government approval.

"We were working on ways to ensure that no child is sent home due to non-payment of fees," said the minister. "We also have names of schools which have since

the beginning of the year been increasing school fees to levels that are unrealistic without the approval of the government. I can assure you that such schools will be penalised heavily."

About a quarter of children who complete primary school education cannot afford to go on to secondary school, and many end up begging on urban streets, according to UNICEF data. Children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, particularly in rural communities, are worst placed when it comes to access to schooling.

UNICEF is spearheading the Harare Taskforce on Street Children, a joint venture between non-government organisations and government departments, which conducted a survey in 2004 revealing that a high percentage of the children on the streets of the capital were virtually illiterate, although they had a strong desire for education.

"Most of the children left home to look for ways to earn an income or because of poverty at home," said the survey report. "Most children indicated that they would like to return to school."

According to another UN report from the same year, more than 50,000 children of informal traders and city squatter families in Zimbabwe had dropped out of school. The number has increased enormously since then.

Retired educationist William Mupita, who was a teacher for 40 years, said he had never seen such large numbers of children dropping out of school. "This is probably the first time since the days of the liberation war [of the Seventies] that such high numbers of children have dropped out of school in such a short period of time,” he said. “The figures should alarm anyone serious about this country's human development."

Worsening conditions also make schoolchildren more vulnerable to sexual abuse, according to a child rights group.

"Because of the hike in school fees, many children are visiting schools trying to negotiate fee payments. It makes them more vulnerable at the hand of teachers who exploit them," said Witness Chikoko, acting director of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect.

Staff at a boarding school near Marondera, southeast of Harare, were recently charged with sexually abusing 52 girls, and similar cases have been seen in many other parts of the country.

Even President Mugabe's alma mater, the elite St Xavier College at Kutama, 80 kilometres southwest of Harare, has announced that one-third of its 1,000 pupils have left because parents can no longer afford the fees. Textbooks are not being replaced and classrooms are falling apart.

The teachers at the college are, however, grateful for the free eggs and chickens that arrive intermittently from a nearby farm estate confiscated from its former owner and now in the hands of Mugabe family members.

Saul Dambaza is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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