AN estimated 840 000 schoolchildren have quit school since 2020 following the outbreak of COVID-19, a United States embassy report on the 2021 state of human rights in Zimbabwe has shown.
But the government scoffed at the statistics, with Public Service minister Paul Mavima yesterday saying the report fed into the hostile US agenda against Zimbabwe.
The US embassy report, released on Wednesday this week, said some affected learners had been forced into child labour, particularly in tobacco farming and artisanal mining, while others had turned to street vending.
“Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) estimated 840 000 children dropped out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many joined the informal workforce. Children participated in hazardous activities or other forms of child labour in subsistence agriculture, growing sugarcane and tobacco (the latter cited by NGOs as posing adverse health effects for child workers), domestic service, street begging, informal trading, artisanal gold mining, and sex work,” the US report read.
“Working children often faced hazards to their health and safety as they lacked necessary occupational safety equipment and training.”
The Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation estimated that more than
20 000 children had turned to street vending since the pandemic hit Zimbabwe.
The country’s laws frown upon child labour, with section 11 of the Labour Act setting the minimum age of employment at 16 years.
Section 19 of the Constitution mandates the State to take appropriate legislative and other measures to protect children from exploitative labour practices.
But the US embassy said the Public Service and Social Welfare ministry failed to enforce the provisions of the Constitution to curb child labour during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The lack of free basic education for children increased the prevalence of child labour. The Department of Social Welfare in the Ministry of Public Service and Labour is responsible for enforcing child labour laws, but the department did not effectively enforce the laws. Penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable serious crimes.”
Contacted for comment, Mavima, however, said the government was conducting its own independent study to establish the true picture.
“We do not rely on external reports. We have our own report that will be released in May. After all, the US has never reported about us in a positive way, and so why should we rely on their reports?” Mavima told NewsDay.
Primary and Secondary Education ministry spokesperson Taungana Ndoro also dismissed the US report saying the figures were “highly inflated” to suit an anti-government agenda.
“The report should never be considered. The figure is out of this world. The main aim of such ungrounded and highly-inflated statistics is to tarnish the image of the government and to push the regime change agenda. There are no such statistics on school dropouts in the country,” Ndoro said.
A recent report by the Family Aids Caring Trust Zimbabwe (Fact) and the United Nations Children’s Fund claimed that 20 000 girls had dropped out of school since 2020.
Teachers’ representatives blamed the failing economy for the high number of school dropouts because parents were struggling to pay school fees.
The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) said findings of its research covering only five provinces showed that 45 000 pupils had dropped out of school since 2020.
“Our findings show that one of the major reasons children are dropping out of school is lack of appreciation of the importance of education,” PTUZ president Takavafira Zhou said.
“It is not inspiring at all when a school-going child sees an engineer selling tomatoes in the streets. They know they will not get jobs after graduating and so they will not value going to school.”
Zimbabwe Teachers Association secretary-general Goodwill Taderera urged government to take measures to arrest the growing trend of school dropouts.
“There are issues of poverty, child marriages and several other socio-economic issues that have contributed to the high figures of school dropouts, and there is need for urgent action to address the problem,” he said.