Thousands of Swazi AIDS orphans risk being locked out of school at the start of the new term this week, after the government failed to make good on a promise to provide scholarships for all those unable to afford school fees.
"I don't know where to turn. The school said I must find someone to pay my fees, because the government money that was promised never arrived," said Anne, a secondary school student at St. Mark's High School, in the capital, Mbabane.
She comes from the impoverished Msunduza Township, in the mountains overlooking the city. Her mother, a former domestic worker, and her father, who made ends meet with odd jobs, left little behind when they died of AIDS-related illnesses, and she now lives with relatives who cannot afford her school fees.
Another AIDS orphan at the same school, who asked not to be named, said he was confident he could find sponsors to allow him into Form III, but only if he could prove he had passed the previous academic year. His dilemma is that "The school told me to go home at fetch the money owed from last year," before they will release his results, and the government has not paid his outstanding fees.
For the past four years the government has tried to make good on its assurance that the 80,000 pupils who had lost their parents to AIDS would have their fees covered, but each term thousands are overlooked. Acting Minister of Education Mtiti Fakudze urged a meeting of headmasters on Wednesday to hold off expelling students and give the government a chance to sort out the mess.
"The consultation has been prompted by the inability of the budget allocation to pay school claims in their entirety in the 2006 school year. It was resolved to review the method of selection of beneficiaries and payment," Fakudze told a press conference.
In 2003 the government allocated US$2.3 million to cover school fees, which has steadily risen and by 2006 reached almost US$6.4 million. But the increases have not kept pace with the growing number of orphans in a country with the highest HIV prevalence in the world: nearly 40 percent of adults are infected with the virus.
The United Nation's Children Fund (UNICEF) anticipates there will be 120,000 AIDS orphans by 2010, the equivalent of 10 percent of the population.
"This matter is not going away, and is going to get worse with the rise in AIDS orphans. But school principals cannot be made the villains - we are educators, that is our calling," a head teacher in the central Manzini region told IRIN/PlusNews.
"It is agony to expel a student because of his or her poverty; it is heartbreaking. Many of our orphans are actually subsidised by other parents. But all schools operate through school fees, or we shut down. Government made a noble promise [to pay for all orphans], and it must fulfil it."
To meet the growing need, humanitarian organisations like the Bhaphalali Red Cross Society have targeted orphans for special assistance. "Our goal is to pay school fees for 1,000 orphans. We do not discriminate - whether a child is orphaned by AIDS, or another cause, it does not matter - but most children we find are AIDS orphans," director Sbongile Hlope told IRIN/PlusNews.
Hlope said a better listing of eligible children and improved accounting for funds was required to put an end to the perennial crisis of orphans barred from school each year.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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