The UN Children's Fund says school attendance in Zimbabwe has been dropping at an alarming rate because of the collapse of the country's socio-economic system, which is affecting students and teachers alike. UNICEF says it is afraid few children in Zimbabwe will be returning to class when schools are scheduled to re-open in a couple of weeks.
The UN Children's Fund reports school attendance in Zimbabwe has rapidly declined from more than 85 percent in 2007 to just 20 percent by the third term of 2008.
The UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe, Roeland Monasch, says the cholera epidemic and the collapse of basic services are adversely affecting the population. He says children are staying away from school because they have to help their parents look for food or find ways to earn money to help support their families.
He says many schools closed about three months early last year because teachers were no longer coming to work. He says he is afraid they will not show up when school reopens in mid-January. He says the majority of teachers are not attending work due to low salaries and bad working conditions.
"What we need to do is we need to make sure that teachers are motivated and are able to come back to school. And, that really all depends on the support we can provide those teachers," he said. "It basically means we are working at the moment with the Ministry of Education in public service to see if there is a possibility to set up an incentive scheme so that teachers are willing to come back to school. For that, of course, we need some donor support."
Monasch says the current situation is further complicated by the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zimbabwe. He says nearly one in four Zimbabwean children are orphaned by the disease. And, the ability of support groups to provide care and treatment to those infected with HIV has decreased.
"So, for example, when I talk about schools are being closed, it also means that we have over 1.3 million orphans, children who have lost their mother, father or both parents. Those children need to have a very protective and stable environment and a stable life. And, schools provide a stable environment for those children," said Monasch. "And so, we are also working very closely with the authorities to make sure that the schools open in January again because we will have a major problem on our hands if the schools do not open."
Monasch says urgent action is needed to get the school system functioning again. He says UNICEF is trying to bring more than 100,000 teachers back to work by raising their salaries and by providing them with food aid.
He says the schools are in a dire state. They must be provided with more learning and recreational materials. And, he says, the sanitary facilities must be improved.