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Burundi Initiates Free Primary Education for Children


One obstacle to improving enrollment in primary and secondary schools in Africa has been the cost. UNICEF says school fees consume nearly a quarter of a poor family’s income in sub-Saharan Africa. Often families must pay not only for tuition, but also for textbooks and uniforms.

After independence in the 1960s, many African countries guaranteed their citizens free primary and sometimes secondary education; but by the 1980s and 1990s fees were imposed to help balance national budgets and cut state expenses.

As a result, millions dropped out and education became the province of the small middle class and elites. The Paris-based Association for the Development of Education in Africa says in Mali, for example, attendance rates today for the poorest 20% of the people are three to four times lower than that of the richest 20%.

In recent years fees were dropped, with impressive results. UNICEF says after measures were taken guaranteeing free primary education, school enrollment grew in Tanzania by 50% – from 4.4 million in 2002 to 6.6 million in 2003. In Kenya, it grew from 6 million to 7.2 million in a matter of weeks in 2003; in Uganda and Malawi, enrollment grew by over one half after fees were dropped. Other countries that now offer free primary education include Mozambique, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Burundi.

Catherine Mbengue is UNICEF’s representative for Burundi. She told English to Africa reporter William Eagle that before dropping fees last year, nearly half of the country’s 1.2 million children aged 7 to 12 did not go to school. Today, things are different.

“We have a surge of all these children who had been deprived of education,” says Ms. Mbengue. “We are working actively (now) with the Ministry of Education and other partners, including NGOs to make sure children are sheltered – even in temporary schools – and that they have all necessary school materials. [And many donors are supporting these efforts providing financial contributions directly to the government or through UNICEF]. We are even bringing specifically-designed tents into the country to make sure kids who come to school are not sent back.”

But guarantees of free primary education have not only increased attendance, they have also put strains on school buildings, textbooks and human resources. Ms. Mbengue says UNICEF and the Ministry of Education are exploring ways to meeting the challenge, such as having double shifts or different classes or grade levels to share the time they use the school buildings.

The UNICEF representative says the government and donors are also working to train new teachers: “The Ministry of Education of Burundi has embarked on an initiative to recruit three thousand teachers and we and our partners are helping [to] train them. We are not going to do [teachers’ training]. [Instead], they’re taken for a short period [and] imparted with some solid but condensed knowledge so they (can go right to work)…and then later you can bring these teachers back and train them [further] on other issues [like child-friendly schooling methods, life skills education, HIV/AIDS and sexual and gender-based violence prevention].

Ms. Mbengue says recruiting teachers is not difficult. Burundi, like many other countries, has plenty of young people who have graduated from secondary school and are looking for work. She says it’s a golden opportunity for them to serve the country. Ms. Mbengue adds that the government and donors are also aware that pay must be adequate to keep teachers, who are after all entrusted with the country’s most important resource for development – its children.