Compulsory free education policy leaves out poor teenage herd boys

MATHATISI SEBUSI

MOKHOTLONG – Lesotho’s constitution provides education as a fundamental human right and to ensure that every person has access to education. The government has made primary education free for all and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 13. However, basic education is a privilege for 14-year-old Retšepile Sefeane who cannot afford it. Instead, he is tied to child labour and has since become his family’s bread winner since the age of 10 after his father died.

Sefeane is hired as a herd boy and has 30 sheep that are usually under his care at all times.His unemployed mother and his two siblings solely depend on the income Sefeane gets annually. All that Sefeane wants is to go back to school and be a soldier when he grows up, but all odds are against him and he is convinced that going back to school is just a far-fetched dream and his responsibility is to look after his family.

He lives at Ha Koeneha in Mokhotlong. For the four years that he has been working as a herd boy, Sefeane only has two sheep to show for his hard work as the other part of his payment went towards feeding his family. Most of his summer days are spent at the cattle post where he and the 30 sheep spent the whole summer exposed to severe weather conditions with little clothing covering his body.

Looking unkempt and a little shaken, with teary eyes, Sefeane tells Public Eye that he hates being at the cattle post as he feels unsafe and is exposed to extreme weather conditions and hunger on some days. He said during heavy rains, he is compelled to sleep with wet clothes as he has no other clothes to change with.

“I hate it at the cattle post; I get hungry and I am always scared. Sometimes when it rains I am compelled to sleep with my wet clothes because I do not have any other clothes. “I have been herding sheep since I was 10 years old, my mother took me out of school while I was in Grade 2 so that I can work after my father died,” he says.

When asked what he wished for, Sefeane says he wanted nothing but to go back to school so that he can fulfill his desire to become a soldier. Also of concern for little Sefeane is the treatment that he receives from his employer. He says he is treated like a second class citizen and his opinions and desires are not taken into consideration.

No one listens to his plea to go back to school and only herd sheep after school. “I remember one day when we went back to the cattle post, we found our hut burned down and hours later when we were busy rebuilding it, it started raining. We got wet as we had nowhere to run to for shelter. We spent the whole night in wet clothes,” he says.

Sefeane is just one of many Basotho children that are taken out of school to herd domestic animals. His fundamental rights to education are denied, and he is exposed to child labour but the country remains mum about the matter. Free primary education was introduced in 2000 as a major strategy towards achieving ‘the education for all’ goals.

This has been reported to have led to a rapid increase in the net enrollment rate. Primary education became legally free and compulsory in Lesotho in 2010 through the Education Act 2010. Sefeane is one of the herd boys which Mokhotlong Shepard School has taken under its wings to teach them life skills, how to read and write, among others skills.

Their teacher ’Mamakoae Makoae said herd boys are the most vulnerable people that are forgotten by the country yet they contribute more to the country’s economy. He said most of his students come from disadvantaged families and have no choice but to work in order to put food on their families’ tables. She added that a majority of them have no proper clothing and have little to nothing to eat most times.

Makoae said their situation is worsened by always being in the open where they look after their animals exposing themselves to severe weather conditions. She said herd boys, like any other members of the community, need to be looked after and capacitated with life skills that would help them improve their lives but, unfortunately, they are a forgotten community.

In order to address challenges faced by herd boys and capacitate them on climate change impacts and how they can look after themselves during severe weather conditions, ministry of forestry in partnership with ministry of energy and meteorology and WFP, under the project called IACOV, visited Mokhotlong herd boys. Under the programme, herd boys were taught about climate change, its impact and how they can protect themselves from extreme weather conditions.

Deputy Chairperson at National Climate Change Committee Mofihli Phaqane advised the herd boys to always be on the watch about weather warnings that they receive from Lesotho Meteorological Services.

He encouraged them to pay attention to weather warnings so that they can be able to make informed decisions concerning when to move their livestock to avoid drowning or losing their livestock. Phaqane advised them to avoid finding shelter under rocks as that could put their lives in jeopardy. The herd boys were also capacitated on the importance of looking after water sources and grazing lands.

Ministry of Education and Training Chief Education Officer-(Primary), Thuto Ntšekhe Mokhele, in an interview with Public Eye noted that as per Education Act 2010, primary education attendance is compulsory for children aged between the ages of six and 13. She said it is everybody’s responsibility to ensure that children are not robbed of their chance to education and whoever overlooks such incidents where children are denied right to education, would have committed a crime and legal action can be taken against them.

Mokhele noted that it is every parent and guardian’s responsibility to ensure that children within the stated age group are taken to school and failure to do so can be punishable by community service or one-year imprisonment or M1 000 fine. She said there are parents and guardians that have been imprisoned for denying children education and the responsibility to ensure that citizens obey the Education Act lies with the police.

She further noted that there is need to capacitate communities on the importance of education so that parents and guardians can prioritise children’s education, further underlining that primary education is crucial. She noted that the ministry of education is already making public awareness on the importance of education and encourages communities to take children to school from a young age until they reach secondary level.

“Every parent or guardian that is witnessed taking a child out of primary school is committing an offence and liable for imprisonment, M1 000 fine or community service. “Anyone who sees the criminal act and ignores it would also have committed an offence and whoever hires an under-age child to work as a herd boy while they should be in primary school also commits an offence,” she said.

Police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, told this publication that numerous cases of parents and guardians that have taken children out of primary school have been reported to the police and legal action has been taken against the human rights violators. He said most times, it is the community that reports such cases and can affirm that the government is firm in ensuring that children’s rights to primary education are not violated.

Director at Transformation Resource Centre, Tsikoane Peshoane, said it is unlawful to take a child out of primary school and put them to work since that is child labour. He said TRC do not tolerate such acts and will need to establish how many children are taken out of primary education and are victims of child labour.

He, however, said that the country’s education system needs to be revised, relooked and realigned with the social and economic needs of the country. Peshoane said there are a lot of aspects that are restricting the country from prioritising education at all times, hence the herd boys’ issue cannot be treated as a single incident.

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