Feature: Free education brings hope to vulnerable families in Zambia

  • World
  • Thursday, 20 Jul 2023

LUSAKA, July 19 (Xinhua) -- Faides Sakala is a 70-year-old grandmother living in the Ng'ombe community, one of the sprawling, densely populated residential areas in the Zambian capital of Lusaka.

She was more than glad recently because her two grandchildren can afford to attend school without her spending any money following the introduction of free education.

Sakala was left to take care of her grandchildren after the death of her daughter, who was a single mother. But her business of selling vegetables was not enough to both provide food and take her two grandchildren to school, resulting in the two dropping out.

"We are really grateful to the government for introducing free education, and my grandchildren are now back in school. The only thing I need is to buy them books," she said.

Sakala is among hundreds of impoverished families in Zambia who have managed to send their children back to school following the introduction of free education last year, a situation that has resulted in increased enrollment.

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema honored his campaign promise ahead of the 2021 general elections of introducing free education once elected, which became a reality last year.

According to the new government policy, education is free from early childhood to secondary school level in all government-run schools.

The introduction of free education has seen the elimination of barriers to education like school fees as well as examination fees. And the government is pleased that the decision to introduce free education has allowed more children from vulnerable families to access education.

Douglas Syakalima, minister of education, said the free education policy has increased enrollment in schools at all levels.

In remarks delivered at a joint review meeting of the education sector recently, the minister said enrollment at the primary school level has risen from 3.2 million to 4.3 million between 2020 and 2023, while at the secondary school level, the data has moved from 859,000 to 1.5 million.

He said education is the key element of everyone's life and a critical investment in the future of individuals and society, adding that the "Education for All" policy is meant to ensure that all people attain an education.

The minister, however, was aware that increased enrollment has brought with it challenges, such as a shortage of classrooms, desks, and teachers. But measures by the government have been put in place to address these difficulties.

According to the minister, the ministry has negotiated for additional financing of 120 million U.S. dollars from the World Bank under the Zambia Education Enhancement Project, which runs up to December 2025.

The largest proportion of the funds will be for the construction of 120 secondary schools, he said, adding that the ministry intends to embark on teacher recruitment every year to build on the 30,496 teachers recruited last year, starting with 4,500 teachers this year.

Lois Mulube, acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance and National Planning, said the government is pursuing policies and programs aimed at broadening access to education. She said education is a fundamental right for all children as it enables them to secure their right to development and protection.

"We believe that education is an equalizer and provides a springboard that will enable our generation of children to actualize their potential," she said during a high-level forum at the United Nations headquarters in New York, according to a statement released on Monday.

Stakeholders have since expressed satisfaction that the free education policy has so far been a success despite minor challenges.

George Hamusunga, executive director at the Zambia National Education Coalition (ZANEC), said financial challenges were preventing people from sending children to school.

"The pronouncement of free education is a huge milestone that has seen increased enrollment, and we are happy that parents have taken advantage of this and are sending their children to school," he said in an interview.

He, however, said research conducted by ZANEC has shown that the increase in enrollment was more pronounced in urban areas than in rural areas, and attributed this to a lack of awareness among rural dwellers. He has since called for increased awareness, especially in rural areas.

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