School in a time of cholera? Health risk threatens return to school for Zimbabwe children

Zimbabwean children and their families are being forced to choose between an education and immediate survival, with cholera adding yet another obstacle to today's scheduled return to school, warned international agency Oxfam. The disruption could blight the future of millions of children, said Oxfam.

Schools were closed for much of 2008, with teachers stating that their meager salaries, paid in Zimbabwean dollars, were not even covering their transport costs to work. Now the school year starts again, Oxfam is warning that the return to classes might lead to a new upsurge in cholera.

Nearly 3,000 people have died so far in Zimbabwe’s worst-ever cholera epidemic, and over 50,000 people are infected by the disease. There are fears that numbers could exceed 60,000 in the coming weeks. Many schools are dilapidated and do not have clean running water or basic toilets, which are vital to prevent them from becoming breeding grounds for the disease.

Peter Mutoredzanwa Oxfam Country Director in Zimbabwe said:  “It is a tragedy that children and their families are facing this impossible choice: risk their lives or compromise their futures. Education is just one of many casualties of the political and humanitarian crisis in the country.

“An education is a route out of poverty – but that route is being shut off.  Donors and the government need urgently to work together to find a way to resuscitate the education sector and rehabilitate schools. This crisis cannot be allowed to steal childrens' futures.”

Even without the additional obstacle of cholera, education in Zimbabwe is facing tough times. Official reports from teachers’ unions suggest that many teachers will stay at home until their  pay dispute is resolved. Teachers are currently getting the equivalent of $2 a month – just enough to get a few loaves of bread.  Likewise many families can no longer to afford to send children to school – they are selling livestock and other valuables just to get food.

Mutoredzanwa, said: “Families are facing impossible dilemmas. With no food on the table and the risk of cholera, it is no surprise that children will be staying away from school, but the immediate crisis may have repercussions for years to come. We risk a whole generation trying to “catch up” on education. We need urgent donor and government action to save our children’s futures.”

Oxfam is responding to the cholera outbreak by providing clean water, soap and disinfectant to 620,000 people. It is building toilets in schools in Gutu, Masvingo province. There is an urgent need to re-build water and sanitation systems to halt the spread of the epidemic.

"The dilapidated state of sanitation in schools is mirrored at the community level and this is fuelling the epidemic. In many communities, children play near open sewers and there is no running water at all.  Funding is desperately needed to put this infrastructure back together to slow the spread of cholera and prevent further outbreaks."

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