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EDUCATION-SWAZILAND: Urban Youth Slipping Through The Cracks

James Hall

MBABANE, Jan 10 2008 (IPS) - As the new school year begins here many destitute or orphaned children are in need of assistance to pay for their educations. An unknown number of urban youngsters, however, are slipping through the social welfare net.

"Impoverished children in the country’s urban areas might run into the thousands," Juanita Mkhonta, a social welfare worker in the central commercial town Manzini, told IPS.

"It occurred to me during the Christmas holidays, when there were several news stories about urban orphans receiving food gift baskets," Mkhonta said. "I thought, if they were discovered by philanthropic individuals without the knowledge of the food aid organizations, how many of these uncounted kids are also lost to the school aid assistance system?"

"The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) did a crop assessment survey in May, and when the teams went from house to house we also did a survey of OVC (orphans and vulnerable children)," said Abdoulaye Balde, WFP Country Representative for Swaziland.

"The informal settlements at Swaziland’s towns were left out of the survey because the populations were considered transitory," noted Mkhonta.

"There are no traditional authorities there or community committees for NGOs to work with. That is why there were so many poor children who received the food donations we read about in the press during the holidays. They said they had no food at home. My thought: If no one has made provisions for their meals, who is looking after their education?" she stressed.

"These kids have been lost in a societal change. Swaziland’s government is geared toward traditional rural life. The U.N. agencies and NGOs are also primarily targeting rural areas for assistance. It’s as if the towns do not exist," said Mkhonta.

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), for instance, works with traditional rural leaders to assist rural-based orphans and vulnerable children at schools and at neighbourhood care points.

"We really do not do town neighbourhood care points. The food aid we coordinate is primarily for rural schools," Pelucy Ntambirweki, a programme coordinator for UNICEF, told IPS.

The reason is a lack of data, which usually is only available in rural areas where persons in need can be reliably counted.

"Historically, Swazis reside under chiefs in rural areas. Towns are just places you go for jobs, and then the Swazi returns to the parental homestead when work is done," said Albert Dlamini, a ‘runner’, or clerk, for one of Swaziland’s 350 hereditary chiefs.

Even Swazis who own homes in towns are considered subjects of rural chiefs, whose names are affixed to official documents like passports and tax forms.

"So, when people are counted it is at the chiefdoms," Dlamini told IPS.

UNICEF and other social welfare NGOS have enlisted chiefs to assess the number of children in need.

The National Emergency Task Force also employs community committees appointed by chiefs to tabulate orphans and people in need of emergency food assistance. Such committees locate child-headed households in their areas, which are proliferating as HIV/AIDS ravages families.

The data is then used to bring assistance to vulnerable children and place them back in classrooms they left when family finances made payment of school fees unaffordable, or parents died of AIDS, leaving children destitute.

"In rural areas, the children can be known. But in towns, who counts them in the township slums?" noted Dlamini.

Population information collection was extensive in 2007. Not only was last year the time for Swaziland’s once a decade national census, but also the worst drought in modern history cut crop production by 80 percent, and a count of people requiring food assistance was necessary to avoid famine.

The health ministry also undertook its first household health survey in 2007 to determine an accurate picture of the country’s AIDS situation. It found that more than a quarter of sexually active adults are HIV positive – the world’s highest prevalence rate.

With AIDS deaths proliferating because of a slow rollout of anti-retroviral drugs, more children are destined to become orphans.

Swaziland’s charitable organizations, be they faith-based or NGOs, open their doors to anyone in need, but tend to rely on recipients to come to them.

With data unavailable on the scope of children who may be left out of the education system when schools open this month, an informal survey was attempted by IPS. It is not hard to find informal settlements in Manzini, a small town of 30,000 that is Swaziland’s largest urban centre because of such informal settlements, with populations that exceed 60,000.

A visit to a cluster of shacks half hidden by reeds along a small and fetid stream west of the town centre turned up dozens of shy, ill-clothed children. Listless from hunger, they were emboldened by a visitor’s gift of bread and milk to say they were not going to school. Some had never attended class.

"It is because of money. There is none," said Thandi, a ten-year-old girl without parents. She spoke vaguely of relatives in the area.

Would the children like to go to school, they were asked? They all nodded their heads affirmatively, though with apparent apprehension at the prospect of mingling with more experienced and properly dressed children.

Is school what they wished for more than anything else? Answers were negative, "We are hungry all the time. We want food," the children said.

IPS returned the next day with a nurse from the Red Cross, who promised to bring the children to the attention of child welfare workers in the city. By this time, however, Thandi had disappeared. None of the other children had seen her since the previous day.

"That’s the problem. These children come and go. All we know is their numbers are increasing as the economy gets worse and the AIDS deaths mount," said the nurse.

Outgoing Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Education Goodman Kunene says that the government is meeting its promise to finance the educations of all known orphans and vulnerable children.

"About a third of the nation’s school children – about 100,000 – are OVC and getting government assistance. That is a massive amount, and it shows a great commitment on government’s part to ensure that all children receive at least primary education from Grade One to Standard Five," he said.

Kunene says urban schools’ headmasters provide information to the education ministry on the number and whereabouts of their pupils in need of assistance.

However, a source with the Swaziland National Association of Teachers – which is often at odds with government over matters of education policy and financing – questions the reliability of data collection on urban OVC in need of education.

"School headmasters only know their enrolled students, and so it follows that they can report to the education ministry only those students who drop out for financial reasons. A headmaster is not going to know how many kids in the townships should be attending his school but are not. He would not know about unregistered children who may be camped out in a shack right outside the school premises. It’s not his job to do that type of investigation. That is what makes the slums so insidious – the way persons get lost there even to social welfare helpers," he said.

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