Murambatsvina children condemned to ignorance

Before Independence in 1980, under the repressive rule of the Rhodesians, President Robert Mugabe managed to obtain no less than five academic degrees. But in a free Zimbabwe thousands of youngsters may never be able to count to 10.

According to Amnesty International more than 90 000 children, who were displaced in the government’s “urban cleanup” Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, had their schooling disrupted. The state demolished homes, small businesses and other structures, leaving close to a million people homeless.

Jestina (not her real name), aged 12, was a student at Hatcliffe Prime School. She is a resident of the slums that sprang up in the wake of Murambatsvina. Her parents have gone to South Africa and she has been left in the care of her grandmother, who cannot afford the school fees.

“My fees have not been paid so I am not going to school,” she said.

Under international law, Zimbabwe is obliged to ensure that primary education is free and compulsory for all children. But when grade seven examination began two weeks ago, an estimated 90,000 children could not join their peers because they could not pay the prohibitive school fees.

They are condemned to a life of illiteracy, where academic degrees which, before independence, could be obtained in detention, are now a preserve of the rich.

These children may never get to read the books purchased by the government of national unity under the donor-funded Education Transition Fund. The same applies to many others who attend makeshift community schools not registered with the state.

The ray of hope provided by the government in partnership with UNICEF through Basic Education Assistance Module may never shine on the children at Hopley or Hatcliffe communities, because their schools are not registered.

Since the formation of the GNU, the Ministry of Education has made huge strides. The EFT has seen the procurement of millions of books for both primary and secondary schools – raising the student to textbook ratio from 1:10 to 1:1 – a first in Africa.

The Public Sector Investment Programme provides for the construction of schools through a Building in Grant Aid which supports the construction works.

But, according to Amnesty International, which works closely with communities of Hatcliffe and Hopley, children who should be going to school stay home and those old enough go to look for work.

Many people told Amnesty International that after the evictions they were forced to find work to help feed their families. In one location called Hatcliffe Extension children as young as 13 seek construction work to earn a living. Many young women said they were unable to attend school so they decided to get married.

Jestina wants to be a psychologist. But if she can’t attend school, her dreams – like those of many others – will die. Many in her situation end up vending, begging or selling their bodies.

“The income brought in by children is vital to the households particularly between April and October when humanitarian organisations usually stop distributing aid after rural harvests,” said Amnesty.

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