Financial Crisis Affects Swazi Orphans, Vulnerable Children

15/09/2011 - The ongoing financial crisis in Swaziland is affecting orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs). However, pledges have been made to deploy funds to pay for the education of these OVCs.

Swaziland's financial crisis is continuing to have implications for most vulnerable young segments of society.

On Tuesday, some principals in Swaziland protested the lack of school fees to pay for some of the children. According to education officials, most of the country’s 328 primary, secondary and high schools (which service 800,000 pupils) opened as usual, including schools in the capital city of Mbabane.

Because of funding shortages, however, principals have stated that they are unable to fully fund their schools' operations, including wages for secretarial staff, buying chalk and other teaching supplies, running school feeding programmes and even paying utility bills.

In a recent decision, it has been reported that the Swaziland Principals Association (SWAPA) has decided not to admit any orphans or vulnerable children (OVCs) into the 2012 school year in order to avoid conflict over school fees.

About 200,000 children, (a fifth of the population) are considered orphaned or otherwise vulnerable. About 63 per cent of the population lives below the international dire poverty line of less than $1.25 per day (averaged over 1994-2008).

In Swaziland, a country of only about 1.19 million, almost 26 per cent of adults are HIV-positive and 69,000 children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Africa's last remaining absolute monarchy has the largest HIV prevalence rate in the world and is so severely affected by the pandemic that AIDS orphans account for 69 per cent of the total number of orphans in the country.

"The situation is bleak, very bleak. Without the money we cannot run the schools," said Charles Bennett to the AFP. Mr. Bennet is the head of SWAPA. Schools are short nearly $11 million, he said to the BBC. About 60 per cent of students are OVCs, he added.

The previous school term was abridged as schools struggled to provide students with appropriate study materials. Even the country's only university remains closed after the start of the new academic year.

Yet, as of last week, the country's government has promised to deploy about $2 million to pay for the schools fees of AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children.

As reported locally in the Times of Swaziland, Pat Muir, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Education, has affirmed that money would be paid to schools by Thursday. Assurances have been made that health and education needs would be financed and the "cash flow problem" resolved, reported the IRIN.

The financial crisis in this AIDS-ravaged nation began when revenues from the regional customs union fell a whopping 60 per cent. While South Africa has agreed to sign on to a $343 million bailout for its Swazi neighbour, the deal has not yet been finalized and is contingent upon Swaziland undertaking political and economic reforms.

Yesterday, Swaziland's King Mswati III opposed proposed budget cuts to civil service salaries called for by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Objecting to salary cuts, the king noted that "some of the civil servants are bread winners for large families."

IMF officials visited the country last month and could not comment further on the report that was issued. But, experts would like to see its targets met and to see cuts to borrowing from the central bank, wages, travel and defence in favour of spending on social sectors like health and education.

Further consultations between the IMF and Swaziland are expected to continue.

Despite the challenges of the global economic crisis and its lingering effects, accelerated global progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) including education-related targets is needed. Last year, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) called for the world to remember the "forgotten children," as at the current pace of progress, there will still be some 56 million children out of school by 2015.