Posted by Somebody's Mother on 2:48 p.m. in
Last month, I had the privilege to hear Stephen Lewis speak at the Quebec Provincial Teachers Association Convention in Montreal. He was a very engaging speaker with many heartbreaking stories to tell yet there is one story that I came away with that continues to haunt me:

Lewis spoke about the horrible massacre that took place in the Ivory Coast where thousands of children were attacked and had arms and legs cut off. The Canadian Foreign Minster, Lloyd Axeworthy, was visiting a hospital and went from bed to bed talking to the patients. He sat down next to one little boy and asked him, “What do you want? What can we do for you?” The little boy answered, “I want to go to school.” That was the major theme of Lewis’ talk: the vast number of children who want to go to school right across the African continent and the vast number of children who cannot go to school because of school fees.

Last summer, the Manchester Guardian published a statement about school fees in Africa by the Minister of Education of Ghana, Papa Owusu Ankomah, “…an estimated 77 out of 94 poor countries, mostly in Africa, still charge some type of fee for basic education. Fees consume nearly a quarter of a poor family's income in sub-Saharan Africa and pay not only for tuition but also indirect costs such as parent-teacher association contributions, textbooks, compulsory uniforms and other expenses.”

Ankomah spoke of the amazing results that can happen when school fees are lifted. When Ghana abolished its school fees in 2004, enrollment went from 4.2 million to 5.4 million. These kinds of results have been repeated in other countries:

“In Uganda, primary school enrolment grew from 2.5 million in 1997 to 6.5 million in 2000; in Kenya in 2003, it jumped from 5.9 million to 7.2 million; and in Tanzania, enrolment more than doubled from 1.4 million to 3 million. Our collective experiences are living proof that abolishing school fees may be the single most important policy measure to dramatically transform school enrollment.”

Education does more for children than teach them to read. In his speech, Lewis emphasized that going to school releases children from child labour and it gives them the chance to play with other children so that they can have a normal childhood. More and more schools provide AIDS prevention education so that these children will have the information that they need to avoid becoming another statistic in the spiraling number of Africans contracting HIV.

Presently, the Stephen Lewis Foundation has a Grandmother-to-Grandmother initiative that allows Canadian grandmothers to raise money and support grassroots organizations that help African grandmothers who are the only ones left to raise their grandchildren as AIDS has killed their children.

I wonder if a school-to-school initiative might be another way to raise money for school fees for children in those countries who still have such fees. One Canadian school could adopt an African school and fundraise to assist children in overcoming this barrier. Teachers could adopt teachers. There could be a mutual advantage in this as children could share letters and artwork so that they could have a better understanding of a culture so different from their own and this interchange could take place between teachers too.

Meanwhile, we could advocate for the abolishing of school fees in favour of better means of financing. A press release from UNICEF states "We live in a world where children whose families cannot pay for tuition, uniforms, desks, pencils, books and building repairs are shut out of classrooms. And yet we also live in a world that ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child a decade ago, a world that recognized free and compulsory education as the right of every child. Governments have both a legal and a moral responsibility to fulfill that obligation."

We may not have a cure for AIDS but we can help children to go school. This is something that governments and people all over the world can implement if only the will is there.

This Christmas, it would be nice to think beyond our own children and grandchildren who are iffy about this school-thing that is a basic part of their lives. Giving the gift of education to millions of children across Africa who are hungry for education and who are hungry for a real childhood could be the greatest gift that we Canadians could give. Merry Christmas, readers and a very Happy New Year!

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