Education System Failing Congolese Children

Institute for War and Peace Reporting

The high costs of education creates problems, with poorer pupils forced to drop out.

According to UNICEF, just 32 per cent of secondary school-age children attend class Photo: Julien Harneis, go.iwpr.info/jhdrc

Hubert Ilunga, an 18-year-old from Lubumbashi, wishes that he could have stayed in school. Instead, he dropped out of the education system when he was just seven and is now forced to work 12-hour days as a conductor on a bus for very little money.

“Today I am paying for the consequences of not studying,” he said. “I wanted to continue studying, but my parents had no money to support my primary education. I do not have a good job. I shout all day long. I wake up at six and finish work at nine.”

Despite these long hours, Ilunga says that he only earns 3000 Congolese francs (about 2.5 US dollars) per day.

“When I think of my life, I feel sorry, because if I had continued my studies I could have had a life other than this one,” he said. “I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to have a family. I’m scared even to get married because I would not wish for my children to be unable to study and to be forced into a life of suffering.”

Nadine Mianda, 20, feels the same.

“The lack of study forces us to live as marginalised [citizens] because those who have money will always be superior to us,” she said. “Their children are studying and we’ll always remain illiterate. The chances are not the same for one who has studied and who has not.”  Mianda dropped out of school when she was ten because her parents could no longer afford the fees. She now works as a domestic helper in order to support herself.

“A lack of education hurts, but we try to adapt to the situation,” she added.

According to UNICEF, the United Nations child protection agency, 75 per cent of children of primary school age attend school. But at secondary school, the corresponding figure is just 32 per cent.  It is not just those that have been forced to give their education up that suffer. According to Daniel Kasongo, a psychologist, a lack of education has serious repercussions for Congolese society as a whole.

“Children who have not studied as they grow do not know what to do,” he said. “They grow up with hatred and they avenge themselves upon those that have succeeded more in life. A lack of education creates miserable people, who live in poverty and turn to crime in order to survive.”

Kasongo adds that, since fighting crime is such a drain on resources, it would be more effective to tackle the root causes of the problem, which include a lack of education.  Georges Mutamba, an independent researcher, agrees, pointing out that a society that is not able to provide adequate schooling for all creates divisions and inequality that can store up problems for the future.

“Since education is not free and parents pay the teachers, those who have no means leave their children at home,” he said. “This creates discrimination since only children of rich parents can study, while poor children do not get a chance. Many end up on the streets since they didn’t go to school. It is up to the state to ensure the education of children.”

Alexis Takizala, a lawyer, points out that the duty of the state to provide free primary education up until the age of 12 is enshrined in the constitution, but many parents still have to pay fees directly to teachers.

Moreover, the constitution stipulates that all children should come away with, at a minimum, the basic skills of reading and writing. But clearly this is not happening.  “Article 43 [of the constitution] states that primary education is obligatory and free in public schools,” he said. “Parents should not pay teachers since they are civil servants. The constitution is the supreme law of the nation. Nobody should abuse it.”

Even though the country’s constitution says that primary education should be free, it is common for schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, to ask parents to pay fees, which are used to supplement teachers’ salaries as well as to contribute towards the operating costs of the school. Teachers are typically paid just 40 dollars a month by the government, and many complain that this is not enough to live off.

Shambuyi Tshiviadi, from the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, an opposition party, agrees that it is shameful that children are being denied a basic education.

“The country is slowly going to hell,” he said. “Today many children have no access to education and some 45 per cent of the national population is illiterate.”  efforts to do so.

Philippe Ilunga, a father of four, said, “I earn 35,000 Congolese francs (about 40 dollars) per month as a civil servant of the state. Each month I have to pay 15 dollars per child to their school. I have four children. Then there is also the rent and the food. It is hard to be a parent in Congo.”

Ilunga suggests that the education clause in the constitution should be removed if it is not going to be respected.  Members of the government and their supporters argue, however, that state sponsorship of education is constrained by what is available in the state coffers.

“It is all a question of budgets,” Thérèse Lukenge, provincial minister of education, said. “Parents must find a compromise with school directors to agree on how much they must pay per month for the school fees of their children. It is a problem we encountered when we arrived in power and the solution cannot be found overnight.”

Jean Mbuyu, a lawyer and parliamentarian for the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Development, a party that is politically close to the ruling party, recognises the right to free education, as laid out in the constitution, but says that the weight of the national debt limits what the government, can do.

“The constitution already established the right to free education, but budgetary constraints have made it difficult to give significant financial support,” he said. “We were asked by the World Bank to make efforts to balance our budget in order to reimburse our debts. Over the past three years, we have made efforts to reach this balance. Last June, we reached the so-called completion point [when a country meets the required threshold for debt relief] of backers.”

Reaching this milestone was a boon to the Congolese treasury, as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank promptly approved 12.3 billion dollars in debt relief.   “We receive 50 million dollars each month that can be invested for social purposes,” Mbuyu said.

However, with so many diverse needs in DRC, there is little sign that this money is being diverted into education. Many other civil servants – including doctors, the police and the military – are also clamouring for a slice of the money, arguing that their salaries are too low at the moment and they often go unpaid.

Mbuyu says that there are many different ways in which the government could use the money.

“The money can be used not only for education, but also other expenses such as health and [unpaid] civil servant salaries. The government is also examining ways in which the money can be invested in industry,” he said.

But, with little evidence that things are improving as a result of this money, many are starting to doubt the commitment of the government to use it for the purposes that it was intended – namely, to improve the social welfare of the population.

Heritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.