New policy to keep Swazi Aids orphans in school

A new education initiative has been started in Swaziland to assist children who have lost parents to the Aids pandemic.

The government says it will start paying the tuition fees of all Aids orphans, many of whom would not be able to attend school otherwise. In the meantime, principals have been instructed to admit the children without further question. To date, authorities have paid teachers’ salaries — but schools mostly depend on fees to remain open.

According to United Nations estimates, almost 39% of Swazi adults are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes Aids. This is up from 4% a decade ago.

The government’s announcement has elicited a mixed reaction: shock on the part of school principals, applause from education analysts — and media scepticism about whether authorities have the money to pay for this initiative.

“We are taking a census of children who have lost both parents to Aids, but the national emergency response committee on HIV/Aids has projected that by 2010 there will be 120 000 orphans in Swaziland. Because of Aids, there may be fewer than 900 000 people in the country by then,” says Colleen Tsabedze, a social worker in the southern Shiselweni region.

At present, Swaziland is facing record budget deficits and a narrow tax revenue base. With a 40% unemployment rate in the formal sector and 80% of the population living as peasant farmers on communal land, taxpayers are few and far between.

To date, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, whose members include school principals, has remained silent on the new initiative. Individual principals, however, have complained bitterly that without immediate government support, bankruptcy looms for any school that heeds the directive.

Education Minister Constance Simelane has been criticised for announcing the new policy the day before the opening of schools nationwide, long after most places in classes had been filled. And, there are fears that some families might try to pass their children off as orphans to obtain government scholarships (a vetting process where orphans are identified by community workers is being set up to counter possible fraud).

Yet, a straw poll of public opinion suggests the directive also enjoys some support — even among members of the public who will end up footing the bill.

When asked about the wisdom of the new policy, a Mbabane attorney observed: “If not government, who? Non-government agencies are good for advocacy, but they don’t have the resources to put children in school.”

Says Thab’sile Fakudze, a single mother in the central town of Manzini: “Behind rent and food, school fees are the biggest item on our family budget, I think even before clothes.”

“It is hard. I would welcome government assistance. But my children have a parent, and the orphans have no one,” she adds.

Social welfare groups also insist that the government’s action is a step in the right direction.

“The reality of Aids orphans must be faced, because it is going to get worse. At least the government is showing an activism with the problem,” says Tsabedze.

Simelane has promised financial relief for schools when Parliament passes the government Budget in a few weeks. The Education Ministry says it assisted 25 000 orphans with their school fees last year. This number will now rise to about 60 000.

Once the matter of tuition is dealt with, authorities also face the task of meeting the nutritional needs of Aids orphans — many of whom live in impoverished urban areas where food is scarce.

The situation is equally dire in the drought-stricken countryside. Were it not for the food rations being distributed by international relief agencies, many people in rural parts of Swaziland would be confronted by famine. — IPS

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James Hall
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