Bissau — Guinea-Bissau's chronic political turmoil is depriving children of quality education. Access to education remains low, learning is often disrupted by teachers' strikes and the country spends the lowest portion of its budget on education in West Africa.
Since independence from Portugal in 1974, the small West African country has been jolted by a string of military coups and a deadly civil war (1998-99) which have undermined social and infrastructural development and made it one of the world's poorest states.
The current interim government came into being after a coup in April 2012.
In the three months after the military takeover, more than 90 percent of state primary and secondary schools were closed due to the absence of effective government, said Tomoko Shibuya, head of education programmes at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Guinea-Bissau.
"Schools are in a deplorable state; there are no desks; roofs are in disrepair and children cannot learn during the rainy season," said Armando Correia Landim, head of the country's 10,000-strong parents' association.
UNICEF Guinea-Bissau spends US$3.5-4 million annually supporting primary education with textbooks, teacher training and curriculum revision, among others. By contrast, the government spent roughly US$11 million on education in 2010 (the most recent year for which figures are available).
In that year the government spent 11 percent of the budget on education - the lowest proportion in West Africa. At 30 percent Ghana allocates the highest amount to education in the region.
More than 90 percent of Guinea-Bissau's education budget pays salaries, leaving little or nothing for teacher training, buildings and equipping schools, according to the UNICEF.
Many Guinea-Bissau donors also withdrew budgetary aid after the latest coup; some had done so earlier owing to perennial instability.
Teachers only recently called off a strike they began in early May - the third strike this school year, resulting in the loss of about a third of annual tuition time. The teachers' union said some of the dues owed to their members date back to 2003.
Teachers' union leader Luis Nancassa blamed the government: "An empty sack cannot stand upright. It's inhuman to employ someone for 4-5 months without a salary," he said, referring to newly recruited staff. "We decided to paralyse learning because the teachers no longer have the energy or the will to continue working without pay."
Education Minister Vicente Poungoura admitted that the "education system is poorly organized" and that an extensive audit was required to determine the exact number of schools and teachers in order to better manage the education sector.
"The government must first have a clear idea of what problems it faces in the education system. Only then can it ask for help from other partners," said Poungoura who took up office as part of the interim government.
"An evaluation will help us understand what should be done. That is why I have insisted that a census must be done in the education sector."
He explained that lack of a clear policy to manage free primary learning had also contributed to the country's education crisis.
"We embarked on free education without regard to financial implications. There is also the problem of staff. We had poorly trained teachers under the free education system. In a poor country like Guinea-Bissau [free education] is sometimes utopian," Poungoura told IRIN.
While the net attendance rate for primary and secondary schools rose to 67 percent in 2010, up from 54 percent in 2006, the quality of education has been poor.
Only about 60 percent of children complete primary school, and the same goes for secondary school. Overall, only 22 percent of children who enter the school system complete secondary school, according to UNICEF.
The primary school completion rate is among the lowest in West Africa.
Shibuya also noted there were few female teachers. "This discourages girls from continuing with studies because they don't have role models."
Widespread poverty, insufficient learning materials and teachers, inadequate teacher training, early marriage for girls, the seasonal use of child labour, and long distances that some students have to cover to get to school, are some of the other barriers to education in Guinea-Bissau.
Meanwhile, some parents have been taking matters into their own hands.
"As parents, we cannot just sit back and do nothing," said Landim. He explained that a scheme set up by the parents' association in 2010 had ensured that the main state schools in the northeastern Gabu and Bafata regions as well as in Tombali and Quinara in the east were functional during the teachers' strike.
Parents make a monthly contribution of 700-2,000 CFA francs (US$1.3-4) depending on the region, to pay teachers up to 30,000 CFA francs ($60). The scheme is meant to complement their pay (they get an average of $140 per month from the government) during lengthy salary delays.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]