School fees barrier to education of millions

The greatest obstacle between these children and a seat in the classroom and in turn their prospect of a better future is ‘€˜the school fees that schools continue to impose’.

So says Joanne Carter, Legislative Director of RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy organisation that lobbies the US government and other developed countries for a comprehensive response to the AIDS and poverty crisis in poor nations.
‘What we’ve seen is that… when you have school fees, it’s obviously a huge barrier to families that don’t have a lot of cash to be able to send their kids to school. School fees are not only a barrier to kids going to school, but to families even adopting AIDS orphans. But the good news is when countries eliminate school fees millions of kids come to school,’ added Carter.
In Kenya, where primary school fees were dropped in January 2003, enrolments increased by a dramatic 22 percent. An estimated 1.3 million children entered school for the first time. Uganda, which used a portion of its debt relief to abolish primary school fees, has seen enrolment grow more than twice as much from 2.5 million in 1997 to 6.5 million in 2000. Similarly, in Zambia, the government reversed its policy on the payment of school fees.
But that ‘is not enough’, says Winston Zulu of KARA, an AIDS care and support organisation in Zambia.

‘What they really meant was that you don’t have to pay to come to school from Grade 1 up to Grade 7. But that doesn’t include books, uniforms and so on. All those things you still have to buy.
What we need is a comprehensive package that would include no school fees, uniforms, books, and, for many orphans, should include food as well. There’s no use being in class hungry’, said Zulu.
Although the payment of school fees in South Africa is not compulsory many children, especially in rural areas have reported being expelled from school because their families were too poor to afford the fees.
Joanne Carter of RESULTS, announced at the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, that a movement has started in the US to help poorer nations eliminate school fees.
‘We have been working on a Bill called the H.R. 4061, the Assistance for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children in Developing Countries Act of 2004. That Bill has passed the US House unanimously with broad support from both Democrats and Republicans, and it’s working its way through the Senate’€™.

Last year, the Administration launched an AIDS initiative. A small portion of that initiative concerned orphans, but Carter said it was clear that there was not a comprehensive response that was in line with the size of the problem.

‘So, we thought we should push the US to do more on this. And this was the first step,’ she said.
Dr Paul Zeitz of the Global AIDS Alliance said the Bill includes ‘access to antiretrovirals and other special paediatric formulations for children’ in developing nations. It is estimated that this ambitious proposal will require around $10 billion.
Responding to a question on about the fact that in some countries schools set a nominal school fee to help with the day-to-day running of schools and, in some cases, payment of teachers due to insufficient budgets governments allocate to education, Carter said, ‘I think it’s true
whether you are in South Africa or in the United States, our governments need to reprioritise what they spend their money on.’
She added that, ‘partly what we are trying to do in creating an incentive in eliminating school fees is to actually create an international Fund that would help countries with transition costs, because we know that it’s eventually going to be part of their budgets. But we can help over three or
four years to provide the money to reorganise the schools, to hire and train more teachers and to buy more books. When Kenya eliminated school fees they did not know where they were going to get the money from. But, some of the donors came up and also, the government reallocated some money within its budget. And I think those are the things that need to happen.’
Wheel-chair bound Winston Zulu of KARA in Zambia, welcomed the initiative saying it’s important that their rights be represented, especially in the era of the AIDS epidemic, because ‘children do not have a voice of their own. Since the epidemic started they have mainly been ignored.’
According to recent UNICEF figures of last year there are more than a million orphans in Zambia.
Research shows that education saves lives. Children who do not attend school, particularly girls, are far more likely to be exposed to sexually risky situations. And Zulu believes that if the US Senate approves the Bill it would help address the problem.
‘If you’re really thinking of a million children without parents or have lost a bread-winner, that means no education, no parental guidance, and many of them go into the streets. And if they are female they become even more vulnerable to catching infections. It’s terrible,’ he said.

E-mail Khopotso Bodibe

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