As Tanzania prepares to introduce free basic education for all, the government has warned that it will punish parents who fail to ensure their children go to school. In a major policy shift, primary and secondary schooling will be free for all Tanzanian children from January, as the government joins its East African neighbour Uganda in offering universal education free of charge.
George Masaju, Tanzania’s attorney general, warned that parents deemed to be holding back efforts to create a literate society by keeping children out of school would face punishment. “Causing a child to drop from school for any reason is a criminal offence because you offend his fundamental right of being educated,” Masaju said late last month at a graduation ceremony at Feza School in Dar es Salaam.
The government’s move to scrap fees in primary schools in 2002 has helped to increase primary enrolment to 94 percent of children aged 7 to 13 years in 2011 from 59% in 2000, according to UNICEF. But parents still had to pay for extras like school books and uniform as well as school fees for some secondary schools.
The new policy aims to free families from any fees and contributions for 11 years of schooling. While it is already compulsory for parents to send their children to class, parents have not been penalised in the past.
In a poor country where agriculture employs more than 80% of the workforce, Tanzanian children are sometimes kept at home to work in the fields or to sell fruit and vegetables in the cities.
From January, errant parents will be fined, but officials have yet to determine by how much, said an official at the ministry of education. However, unlike in Uganda where the constitution provides for the enforcement of the right to education, in Tanzania no law criminalises parents who fail to put children in class.
“If one or two parents were punished under a specific law that discourages irresponsible behaviour, it would serve as a lesson to others,” said Renatus Mkinga, a political commentator based in Dar es Salaam. But critics of such prosecutions said it was more important to address the root causes of absenteeism.
“One of the biggest problems that most people face is poverty, if there were serious efforts to end poverty, most of these problems would die naturally,” said Mary James, a primary school teacher in Mwanza in northern Tanzania.
Globally, the number of out-of-school children rose by 2.4 million between 2010 and 2013, reaching a total of more than 59 million, according to UNESCO. Of those, 30 million live in sub-Saharan Africa.
While Tanzania is on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal on education - by enrolling more than 90 percent of children in primary schools, abolishing fees and building schools in every village - teachers and experts say the education system is still struggling.
“Most schools in rural areas do not have books, pupils are sitting on the floor in overcrowded classes, it is hard to provide quality education in such situations,” Mkinga said.