We’re building a new UNICEF.org.
As we swap out old for new, pages will be in transition. Thanks for your patience – please keep coming back to see the improvements.


Free primary school becomes a reality in Swaziland

© UNICEF/2010/Marinovich
Thulani, 13, sits with his younger brother at a primary school in Entfubeni, Swaziland. He is only now learning how to read and write.

In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative and the global conference entitled 'E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality' to be held in Dakar, Senegal from 17 to 20 May, UNICEF is featuring a series on girls’ education and gender equality. Here is one of those stories.

By Shantha Bloemen

ENTFUBENI, Swaziland, 14 May 2010 – At sundown, Thulani Gama tells his 10-year-old twin siblings to collect firewood while he grinds corn for their supper. At sunrise, he wakes the twins and tells them to wash. Without breakfast, all three children begin their hour-long walk to school in rural Swaziland.

VIDEO: Watch now

Thulani, 13, is the head of his small household. He and his siblings Samkelo and Samkelisiw look after one another since, like many parents, their widowed mother left home to look for work in Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital. Thanks to a new programme supported by UNICEF and the Government of Swaziland, Thulani and his siblings are now able to attend school.

Children raising children

Thulani’s father died from an AIDS-related illness in 2000, while his wife was pregnant with twins. After seeing the younger children to their tenth year, Thulani’s mother left the family seeking to find work and send home money. But the combination of low wages as a housekeeper, expensive transport and only a single day off per month means the mother’s visits home are rare.

© UNICEF/2010/Marinovich
Primary school-aged children in Swaziland study with the help of a UNICEF-supported free school programme.

“Things are bad since my mother left,” said Thulani, sitting in his two-room home decorated with newspaper cut-outs of football and movie stars. Like many young people across the country, he is a child raising other children.

At more than 26 per cent of the adult population, Swaziland has the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate. About 10 per cent of Swazi children under the age of 18 have lost at least one parent to HIV and AIDS. Many thousands of orphans – and children like Thulani, whose parents have left to find work – live in child-headed households. About one out of every five primary school-aged children is not enrolled in primary school.

In the face of this crisis, the Government of Swaziland is aiming to improve access to education for vulnerable children. A 2005 constitutional law requires the first phase of free primary school education, starting with grades one and two. The programme will expand by one grade level each year until 2015, when it will cover all seven grades of primary school. 

Steady progress

While the free primary education programme is making headway, officials say that it takes time to implement the initiative.

© UNICEF/2010/Marinovich
Samkelo and sister Samkelisiwe stand outside their home near Entfubeni, Swaziland. The household is run by children since their widowed mother left a year ago to seek work in the capital.

“We wanted to have time to construct classrooms, put in a structured approach and recruit teachers,” said Israel Simelane, Director of Education in Swaziland’s Ministry of Education and Training.

To achieve these goals, participatory-based learning materials were introduced to complement teacher trainings and ensure quality education. Schools were stocked with books. With financial help from the European Union, the Government also introduced a block grant scheme that provided every primary school $60 per student to cover the costs of maintenance, electricity and water.

In addition, the funding support enables some schools to provide a nutritious lunch each day. At the Entfubeni primary school where Thulani studies, community volunteers serve beans and porridge – the only nutritious meal that Thulani and his siblings eat each day.

First-time students

“The children all complain about missing their mother,” said Simphiwe Simelane, Thulani’s teacher. “They often come to the classroom with problems that you have to help them solve. Sometimes they are so hungry I have to go fetch food from my house.” 

Like Thulani, some students at the school are beyond primary school age. They study in these lower grades because they have never before been able to access education. While it is not easy for older children to sit amongst smaller classmates, said Ms. Simelane, they face a future with few opportunities if they do not learn.

“I am really happy with the free education,” the teacher added. “And I am praying and hoping Thulani continues studying.”




UNICEF's Shantha Bloemen reports on free primary education for children in Swaziland.
 VIDEO  high | low

video on demand
from The Newsmarket

UNGEI website

The site of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative
UNGEI banner
New enhanced search