UN Resident Coordinator addresses Council of Swaziland Churches Annual General Meeting
26 May 2021
Statement of the UN Resident Coordinator, Ms. Nathalie Ndongo-Seh at the Annual General Meeting of the Council of Swaziland Churches
A very good morning to you all. I am delighted to have been invited to address you in your Annual General Meeting. It is indeed an honour and a privilege; one that I take with utmost humility.
Religion, faith and spirituality play a very important role in the lives of many, including mine, especially at times of great losses of lives and livelihoods, sorrow, and little hope as experienced under the COVID-19 pandemics. In a few countries around the world, those losses were coupled with conflict, natural disasters, other pandemics and epidemics such as Ebola, with little humanity, in particular in areas where wars and terrorism never stopped.
Continuous devastations caused by mankind and/or by mother nature challenge us and have compelled us to pause, meditate, rethink our ‘past normal’, fabrics and foundations as families/communities/nations. Many found the strength to carry on with their lives, and at times, with their load in their faith, religious or spiritual beliefs for, like me, they have witnessed the blessings of God’s love, the strength and the resilience of His people, as well as the immense power of unity and solidarity that prevailed in times of COVID-19.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I did not come here to preach but was specifically requested to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on education. This is a very timely topic; one that is important to all of us as parents as well as leaders and influencers in our communities.
It goes without saying that we are meeting in tumultuous times. COVID-19 continues to disrupt our lives and cause devastating impacts across the globe, including in the beautiful Kingdom of Eswatini.
Children have been hit the hardest by the extensive disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Girls and boys living in poverty, those who are already vulnerable such as orphans, are at greatest risk of being left behind. Worldwide, 150 million children are anticipated to have been pushed into poverty because of the COVID-19 outbreak, living without access to education, healthcare, housing, sanitation and water. At least 24 million children are projected to drop out of school due to COVID-19. Children with lower levels of education are more at risk of lifelong poverty, have a lower life expectancy and poorer health outcomes
Indeed, school closures during and following the pandemic had devastating consequences, with marginalised children paying the heaviest price. As we may be aware, for many children, especially in developing countries such as Eswatini, schools are a place of joy, socialization, with vital health, immunisation and nutrition services in a safe and supportive environment beyond learning. For millions, this place of refuge was abruptly removed. Children in developing countries, without access to remote learning, were expected to lose four full months of schooling in 2020, in comparison to six weeks lost in developed countries.
The World Bank estimates a combined USD10 trillion loss in earnings due to lower levels of learning and drop-out risk among children.
Let us not forget that even before COVID-19, more than half of all ten-year olds in low- to middle-income countries couldn’t understand a simple written story. More than one-in-five school-aged children were out of school around the world. According to latest estimates, the pandemic could cause an additional 24 million children to drop out.
In Eswatini, schools were closed for a whole year and this was a huge learning loss for children. According to UNICEF, even before COVID-19, dropout rates stood at over 10 %, which translates to over 25, 000 learners per year. It is estimated that this has doubled now with the prolonged school closures.
One of the major contributing factors is teenage pregnancies, which increase during schools closures. In August 2020, just four months after the closure of schools, over 565 teenage girls were reported pregnant and did not return to schools for the external examinations of grades 7, Form3 and Form 5.
Complications from teenage pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death of girls aged 15 to 19 years worldwide and in Eswatini. One girl-child dying from pregnancy or childbirth complications is one too many. Prior to COVID-19, a total of 87 of every 1,000 girls were falling pregnant; all of whom are at serious risk of losing their education and enduring fatal childbirth complications.
Ladis and gentlemen,
We need to create an Eswatini and a world that are better for our children. As we work towards recovering back and building better from the pandemic, we are reminded of Psalm 127:3: “Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from Him.”
We need to increase investments in education. It is clear that cutting education budgets now will cause catastrophic long-term damage to the economies of countries. Education is essential for economic recovery, allowing parents to work on driving short-term stimulus, economic growth and social cohesion.
The UN in Eswatini would like to applaud in this regard the Government of Eswatini and partners for the important work performed to ensure that schools are safe for reopening, and the measures that have been taken to prevent infection from spreading in schools. This work includes the installation of hand washing facilities, screening of children, staff and teachers, physical distance.
We also congratulate the Ministry of Education for its efforts towards providing distance learning. However, we equally note that there may have been access issues for many learners with limited access to digital platforms.
The UN also appreciates the commitment of teachers who provided the much needed support to the Ministry of Education to implement the distance learning project. Those heroes stepped out of their places of safety when it was risky to do so and made themselves available for face- to-face lessons, in support of external examinations and classes, resulting in an exceptional performance of learners witnessed last year.
We have been informed of the possibility of a third wave of the coronavirus. We would like to take this opportunity to urge the Government to consider closing schools as a last resort to avoid further losses in learning time.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Churches are a very important stakeholder in education. Several churches own schools. This means they have a key role to play in protecting the education right of the girl child. The Hon Minister of Education made a call for all schools to ensure the reintegration of pregnant learners into the school system – a a call possibly followed by actions that we, the UN, applaud. The future of a girl child should not be disrupted by pregrancy and parental obligations.
Churches are encouraged to hear and act on that call, and are invited to partner with the Government, the UN and civil society organizations in addressing the issue of teenage pregnancies and the reintegration of learners into the school system.
We are also seeking the Church’ assistance in encouraging parents to support the school return of all children, boys and girls, and particularly the most vulnerable ones including teenage mothers. Churches should continue to ensure, with the Government, parents and all stakeholders that schools are safe and remain open amid the COVID-19 challenges.
School fees is also one of the barriers to education access. We hope that churches, alongside other partners, can engage in discussions to standardize school fees, especially in thesecondary where education is largely financed by parents. The COVID-19 situation has resulted in losses of incomes and livelihoods for many families. It is therefore likely that many parents will not be able to afford school fees for their children.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As I close, I am reminder of the words of Luke 12:48 which are ever true today and which read as follows: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”.
As we stand alive, in any position of power or influence, it is therefore our common purpose, blessing and shared responsibility to protect and care for those who are vulnerable and in need, including our beloved children.
On behalf of the United Nations Family in Eswatini, I thank you for all that you are already doing to protect and care for the children of this nation. We look forward to exploring an important partnerships with you, our religious leaders, our brothers and sisters, in order to create a greater impact in the lives of God’s children.
Let us be known as an Eswatini that cares for its children; empowers, listens to and learns from them. I wish you all a very fruitful meeting.