Safe back to School Campaign Dialogue

Friday 27 November 2020

A pupil at Mandiki Primary School, Bikita district wearing a facemask

Save the Children in partnership with the Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children (ZNCWC) organised a dialogue for Civic Society Organisations under the Child Rights Coalition and members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Child Rights. The meeting held on 6 November in Harare sought to deliberate and come up with recommendation for children’s Safe return to school as the schools have been reopening in phases. It is one of many initiatives under the “Safe Back to School Campaign.” Forty-seven people who include Members of Parliament representing 5 Parliament Portfolio Committee I.e. Health, Social Development, Justice and the Children’s Caucus participated in the dialogue.

The Safe Back to School Campaign dialogue, comes against a background where most schools in Zimbabwe have remained closed for the greater part of the year 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID 19 in the country in March. While children in developed countries quickly moved to have online lessons, in Zimbabwe this was mostly possible for learners enrolled in private schools only. Most children enrolled in public schools could not have online lessons due to a myriad of challenges, notably lack of computers, electricity, absence of internet and Wi-Fi among others, thus denying thousands of children their right to education throughout the COVID-19 period.

The dialogue sought to iincrease the levels of awareness by relevant Parliamentary Committees to the status of learning and child protection in Zimbabwean schools, and to advocate for increased education financing during schools re-opening to enhance child protection and learning in schools during COVID-19.

In his address to participants at the Safe back to School dialogue session, Toendepi Kamusewu the Head of Programmes Development and Quality at Save the Children Kamusewu acknowledged the important milestones concerning progress towards alignment of child rights laws to the Constitution of Zimbabwe, saying;

“This meeting has been convened at a time when there were critical developments in the child rights and education sectors. Notably, the new Education Amendment Act which was passed into law, and provides for sanitary wear for girls, inclusive education and second chance education for girls who fall pregnant during the course of their education.”

“Developments in the education sector have concerned the Child Rights Coalition hence the need to have an engagement meeting with various Parliament Portfolio Committees as their oversight, legislative and representative roles of the parliamentarians is important as collective efforts are made to improve the situation of children in Zimbabwe,” added Kamusewu.

CSO representatives who made presentations at the meeting noted with concern the long time taken to resolve teachers’ grievances, the exclusion of children with disabilities in the ongoing online and radio lessons, as well as the lack of water in schools in the context of COVID-19.

Teachers strike compromising right to education

Teacher grievances over salaries have led to an almost year-long nationwide industrial action by teachers, which has compromised the quality and inclusivity of learning in Zimbabwe. Concern was raised that some schools are said to be totally closed yet the country anticipates that public examinations will be written by year end. The meeting recommended that the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development be engaged with regards to teacher motivation/conditions of service which have a bearing on quality of education. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education (MOPSE) has an education acceleration programme, which can help to cover for the lessons missed by children during the teachers’ strike, but it is largely dependent on teacher motivation.

Participants noted with concern that COVID-19 has widened the gap of inequality among school children, with particular reference to access to education – due to lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and the fact that learners with disabilities have been left behind.

The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee representatives present indicated that they were aware of the issues and were going to engage their counterparts in parliament to redress them. They recommended that CSOs use every available channel to exert pressure for action such as through petitions which would warrant the relevant Parliament Portfolio Committee to take measures. On the issue of transportation of learners and the need to maintain social distancing – Government committed to provide specific buses for learners.

Children with disabilities left behind

The exclusion of children with disabilities from online or radio lessons was raised as well as questions on how they will catch up. It was noted that the rural-urban divide determines the different access levels that children have to fully enjoy their rights to education. Presenters also stressed that most children with disabilities have limited or no assistive devices, which contributes to compromising their learning. It was agreed that in light of COVID-19, there are children who need specific masks since they use lip reading for their communication. The parliamentarians steering committee made a commitment to push for a fact finding mission after parliament reopens and encouraged the Child Rights Coalition to petition parliament as it has the ability to draw out quicker responses in some instances.

Lack of water increases children’s vulnerability

The WHO recommends that constant had washing under running water is essential for the prevention and control of the spread of the Corona Virus. However, participants to the dialogue noted that the Lack of water in schools was making it difficult for this WHO recommendation to be adhered to, thus putting learners at risk of contracting COVID-19. CSO representatives reminded Parliamentarians that water is an essential component of Menstrual Hygiene Management which poses and exposes girls to risk of harm with its scarcity. In the context of COVID-19 the situation worsens, thus making girls triple vulnerable as they might miss school during their monthly menstrual periods, risk contracting COVID-19 as a result of lack of water and that they are girls makes them vulnerable.

In urban areas, the gathering of people including children at public water points has created spaces for exploitation of children, exposure to child labour and abuse. Those who have access to water demand something in return and to girls it is mainly sex in exchange for water, and these developments increase vulnerability children especially girls. Children are spending a lot of time at borehole queues, thus leaving inadequate time for them to attend school, tune in to radio lessons or even play. Participants bemoaned that the water situation in schools makes it difficult for both children, teachers and staff to adhere to set regulations and COVID-19 prevention protocols.

Other critical issues discussed at the meeting included the fact that some schools did not receive adequate PPEs, the use of public transport by school children when travelling to and from school puts children at risk of COVID-19, the high rates of pregnancy in schools, as well as food insecurity which is affecting school attendance and retention rates across the country.

The meeting ended by CSO under the Child Rights Coalition calling on the Government through Parliament to institute measures to ensure the protection of children in schools is guaranteed, with schools re-opening under the third phase. In addition, they called on government to provide more resourced for education in the 2021 budget to ensure the delivery of quality inclusive education as well as making it possible to adhere to the Covid-19 pandemic protocols.