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New Zimbabwean Government must resolve disastrous school crisis, UN warns

New Zimbabwean Government must resolve disastrous school crisis, UN warns

Zimbabwean children use sticks and dirt as pens and paper in an outdoor classroom near the Mozambique border
Zimbabwe’s education crisis is worsening with nearly all rural schools closed, and the new Government must make the issue a priority, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned today.

“The education situation is a national disaster,” UNICEF country representative Roeland Monasch said on the eve of the inception of a government of national unity bringing in the opposition after months of political discord.

“It is imperative that the unity government focuses on this. Children in rural areas already live on the margins, many are orphaned, a huge number depend on food aid; they struggle on numerous fronts. Now these children are being denied the only basic right that can better their prospects. It is unacceptable,” he added, noting that 94 per cent of rural schools remain closed.

Zimbabwe has been faced with a worsening humanitarian situation owing to years of failed harvests, bad governance and hyperinflation, as well as months of political tensions after disputed presidential elections in March involving the incumbent Robert Mugabe and the opposition figure Morgan Tsvangirai. The crisis has now been resolved by the unity government in which Mr. Tsvangirai will become prime minister.

Most recently it has suffered the worst cholera epidemic in its history, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today he remained especially concerned at the humanitarian situation, noting that an estimated 3,400 people have died from the disease and more than 69,000 have been infected.

The education crisis which started last year saw a marked depletion of teachers, plummeting school attendance rates from over 80 per cent to 20 per cent and postponement of national schools’ exams. This year schools were opened two weeks late, exam results have not been released and learning only resumed in some urban areas for the few who could afford to subsidize teachers’ salaries and pay exorbitant tuition fees in United States dollars.

“It is the responsibility of government to ensure that every child receives an education. The burden of salaries, learning material and school maintenance should not fall on parents,” Mr. Monasch said. “This is just not sustainable, most parents cannot carry this burden and many children will fall between the cracks, and rural schools bear testimony to this.”

Now on the brink of collapse, Zimbabwe's education system was once the best in Africa, but past successes have been reversed by a raft of problems hinging on the lack of financing, which has led to a marked declined in the pay envelope of teachers and school improvement grants.

UNICEF already provides support to the Ministry of Education, Sport, and Culture – $17 million over the last two years – for classroom construction, school fees aid to over 100,000 children, textbooks, learning materials, boreholes, and toilets in rural schools, but teachers remain vital and support to bring them back to the classroom is needed.

“Strong, swift and decisive national leadership is critical at this juncture but so is international support to the sector,” Mr Monasch said. “This is an opportunity for all stakeholders to show their commitment to Zimbabwe and its children.”