Eighteen-year-old Johanna da Conceicao Silva is one of the lucky ones. She has received a second chance to further her education through the Adolescent Girls’ Education Project, despite the ordeal of being impregnated by a soldier at the age of 14.
Despite its limited resources, the program, based in the capital city Luanda, has already trained over 600 girls, all teenage dropouts, to read and write. The young women also learn lessons in sexual and personal health and nutrition, as well as basic professional skills such as making bags.
“I am pretty sure that I am now a much better person than I was before, and my community will respect me for what I have become,” said Silva, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
The Adolescent Girls’ Education Project has become a much-publicized success story in Angola in the midst of an educational reform that has seen increased investment and concentration on issues, such as illiteracy, gender disparity, and primary school dropout rates. Yet the slow pace of improvement in other areas, particularly the creation of additional educational facilities and the poor working conditions of teachers, still call into question the government’s commitment to fulfilling its pledges in the educational realm.
A New Lease on Life
Programs such as the Adolescent Girls’ Education Project are rare in Angola and the demand is high, especially among teenage mothers or other young dropouts who are desperate to go back to school. In a country plagued by teenage pregnancy and gender discrepancy, more than half of young women between the ages of 15 and 19 have had at least one child born out of wedlock according to a UNDP 2009 draft report. Some estimates are even higher. And becoming pregnant as a teenager means that a girl may never get a chance to sit in a classroom again.
The Education Project, on the other hand, offers an accelerated learning program that covers two grades in one year, including additional evening literacy classes for students who are unable to attend during the day. Save the Children, which has worked in Angola since 1989, organized the program, whose sponsors include US oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil.
Exxon Mobil in December pledged to spend a further $3.5 million to support social programs in Angola that focus on literacy and vocational training programs for girls and women, as well as public health.
Another encouraging sign of progress is that the government seems to have finally become serious about eradicating illiteracy. A 2006 UNDP report put Angola’s adult literacy at 67.4 percent – up from almost 50 percent in 2000, according to independent figures.
Special programs have targeted women. According to Angop, the state-controlled news agency, last year close to 30,000 women in Bie Province, in central Angola, attended reading and writing classes at schools created by the Organization of Angolan Woman – the women’s league founded in 1962 and affiliated with the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Such activities have contributed to raising the female literacy rate to around 54 percent, based on figures from independent groups, up from UNICEF’s 2001 figures of only 29 percent.
In another example, 250 teachers in Kwanza Sul Province (on the west coast) are currently teaching 3,000 adult students, men and women, according to Angop.
A Primary Focus
Officials have also declared it one of their priorities to improve the quality of education. Pinda Simao, the new education minister, was quoted by Angop as saying that would this was his main objective for the 2010-2011 school year, both at the primary and secondary levels.
In August 2009, the Angolan education ministry launched the Project to Support Primary Education (PAEP) in collaboration with the European Commission and UNICEF to boost primary education in seven provinces. Simao said at the time that the aim of the project is to see more participatory management of school affairs, as well as to improve teaching and learning methods. UNICEF school projects in around 400 communities are supposed to receive funding to improve children’s learning environments and provide teaching materials and other support.
The project is set to benefit 70,000 primary school students. However, some sources said many schools around the country are yet to receive any kind of PAEP support – financial or material – nearly seven months after the program’s launch.
Too Slow for Some
Despite those complaints, investment in primary education has had in an impact. UNICEF says in its 2009-2013 country report that Angola’s primary school enrolment has risen in recent years as a result of increased government funding, from $1 billion in 2005 to more than $2.6 billion in 2008. Gender parity in primary school attendance has also been achieved. According to IRIN, the UN news service, the percentage of children who do not attend primary school dropped from the end of 2000 from 45 percent to today’s 38.5 percent.
Still, that means that over one third of primary-aged children –533,000 according to a 2006 Save the Children report – remain out of the educational system. And the UNICEF report notes that dropout and grade repetition rates remain depressingly high, at 15 percent and 29.4 percent, respectively, while completion rates were only 33.2 percent for primary education. Most Angola girls drop out of school by the fourth grade (the final year of primary school), succumbing to family pressures, taking on household responsibilities, or getting pregnant, according to the Inter Press Services (IPS) news agency.
Those numbers have some lamenting that the government doesn’t do more, and faster. Save the Children estimates that the country will need as much as $180 million to achieve universal primary education by 2015 – one of the Millennium Development Goals signed in 2000 by world leaders.
“When a country such as Angola, which has just overtaken Nigeria as Africa’s top oil producer, has been unable to spend a lot on education in the past eight years or so, it means something is very wrong here,” a government insider says. Critics upset over the lack of additional spending on social programs point to the reportedly over $1 billion spent on infrastructure to host the 2010 Africa Cup of Nation, a soccer event.
“This government has been promising people heaven and earth ever since [the end of the war in 2002]. And trust me, despite these so-called reforms, I swear with my life that very little has been achieved in education so far,” the source said on condition of anonymity, wary of the government’s brutal methods to subdue anyone who openly criticizes its policies.
In particular, education experts point to underinvestment in the teaching profession and wonder how under-qualified, demoralized, and low-paid teachers will be able to provide quality education to millions of young people. The current situation, say observers, hampers education reforms and exposes teachers to corruption and other unconventional methods to survive. At least five teachers’ strikes and unofficial stay-aways have taken place in Angola over the past decade over poor working conditions, low salaries, late payments, and other complaints.
In its 2009 report, Amnesty International (AI) slammed the Angolan government for instructing police to arrest and detain without warrant members of the Angolan Teachers Trade Union in October in Caxito, Bengo Province, who were striking against low salaries and poor working conditions. Manuel Bento Azevedo, Gonçalves Ismael Lopes, Moniz Mujinga, César Gomes António and Almério Augusto Cristóvão were arrested at Mission School 307, accused of coercing other teachers to join in the strike, according to AI.
“It is sad to see your colleagues being treated in this way,” said one teacher. “We educate the nation and therefore the state must respect us.”
“I think the government is acting irresponsibly. They have been negotiating in bad faith and they should take the blame for failing the people of this country. We are only fighting for our rights and voicing our frustration,” the teacher complained.
State-controlled media outlets continue to boast that the government has in the past seven years or so recruited and trained 70,000 teachers and rebuilt schools, but getting “true” statistics directly from the government is not always as easy as it sounds. Many observers suspect that the majority of official figures have been manipulated for propaganda purposes before being released to the state news agency. The picture looks bleak on the ground.
The teacher-to-pupil ratio in Luanda is about 1:80, according to an education ministry source, who said that the capital city is still the only place where pupils can get an adequate education.
To qualify as a working teacher in Angola, one must have achieved at least the eighth grade in school, but a BBC report found that in reality few teachers ever attain this level. Even in Luanda, only 48 percent of primary school teachers are adequately trained, according to an Oxfam report. And in many cases pupils and teachers still buy their own learning materials–even though Angola’s poverty rate is about 67 percent and more than two-thirds of the population lives on $2 a day.
If classrooms in Luanda are jam-packed and sometimes lacking adequate sanitation, security, computers, clean water, electricity, and even doors and windows, the situation remains dire and precarious in the countryside. Here many children continue to learn out in the open without any school infrastructure.
“How can a teacher take up to 50 or 70 pupils in one squalid class, with some pupils feeling sick and hungry and others very tired from walking long distances?” said the teacher quoted above.
“Where are the classrooms? Introducing local languages in education is good but where are the books? Where are the teachers? Where is the training they have been bragging about? It has ground to a halt. It is frustrating to say the least.
“I think it is time to call it quits, hopefully this is my final year in education. No human being with a sound mind wants to continue working in these conditions,” said the disgruntled teacher.
Some efforts of late have addressed these problems. The education ministry told the press on 20 April that 15 million textbooks were now available for free distribution to children up through the sixth grade.And Kwanza Sul secondary schools received 10,000 writing desks from the provincial government at the end of January this year.
Nevertheless, Angop reported recently that the Khoisan community in the Mbundo locality in Menongue, southern Angola, needs at least one primary school to absorb the 300 children enrolled for this academic year. In the meantime, the children are being taught under the shelter of trees, a solution that has at least allowed them to stay in the education system.
The Kwanza-Norte provincial education system offers more cause for worry.Here, at the end of February, barely a month after schools had reopened countrywide for the 2010 academic year, administrators were still crying out for more classrooms and more teachers to cater to the 4,000 students enrolled this year in the Lucala locality, some 34 kilometers outside of the main town of Ndalatando, according to Angop. The news agency quoted Domingos Manuel João, the education municipal manager (the director of the municipality’s education office), as saying that the region, which has only 21 schools, needs an additional 28 classrooms and the same number of teachers.
Well aware of such problems and under immense pressure to provide an adequate education for a fast-growing youth population, the MPLA-led government has pledged more funds for the sector. In a statement released in October 2009, the government said it would allocate the biggest slice of its 2010 budget (28.1 percent) to social spending, including on health and education. A recent $1.3 million loan from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the country’s finances and bolster reforms should help, as well as economic growth expected to reach double digits in 2010 (up from 6.2 percent in 2009).
But in an interview with IPS Africa, Douglas Steinberg, country director of Angola’s Save the Children office, said that turning around the country’s education system in the next couple of years, as the government has promised, is unrealistic. “Two or three years is too short to see major improvement. I think we’re really looking at a much longer-term transition to the education program.”
“There’s been huge improvement and investment,” Steinberg said. “But the problem is that the quality of education is still quite low. A lot of the teachers don’t have a lot of education themselves, and they haven’t been adequately trained.”