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How Best Can Rural Teachers’ Safety and Health Be Improved in Zimbabwe?

Tendai Makaripe

At Dendele Primary School in Beitbridge, Matabeleland South Province, the lack of clean, safe drinking water created a problematic situation for students and teachers.

They were forced to use rusty water from a distant borehole, making daily life a struggle.

During the rainy season, the situation worsened as the school was cut off from the borehole by a swollen river.

This left the children and teachers no choice but to collect contaminated water from the riverbanks.  

The water shortage not only impacted the students’ health and well-being but also affected teachers’ morale.

Without water at their cottages, teachers faced the exhausting task of finding water after a long day of teaching.

Teachers were demoralised.

“Just imagine spending the whole day teaching without access to water for drinking or basic sanitation,” said one teacher.

The inadequate handwashing facilities left the entire school at risk of disease outbreaks.

Students and teachers had to fetch water from the distant borehole to clean the toilets, which disrupted learning.

Fortunately, the school now has a plentiful water supply, thanks to a newly installed solar-powered piped water system by Save the Children in collaboration with the Beitbridge Water and Sanitation Sub-Committee.

This initiative was made possible with support from UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), funded by the European Union’s Enhanced Resilience for Vulnerable Households in Zimbabwe (ERVHIZ) project.

While staff and students at Dendele got relief from the project, some rural schools across the country have not been so lucky.

They face a myriad of challenges that make the smooth flow of the education process difficult.

While the focus has largely been on how these challenges affect children, teachers are bearing the brunt of these problems.

Besides water problems, teachers in rural areas are dealing with various occupational and health problems that threaten their social, physical and mental well-being.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), defines Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) as: “A multidisciplinary field concerned with the safety, health, and welfare of people at work.”

It is estimated that 2.2 million people die annually from work-related accidents and diseases, and a further 270 million workers fall victim to nonfatal occupational injuries.

This results in substantial human and economic costs to workers and their families, employers, and society.

To understand some of the OSH problems facing rural teachers and the mitigatory initiatives that can be taken to ensure quality delivery and access to education, this publication sampled and investigated some rural schools from Manicaland, Mashonaland and Matabeleland provinces.

One of the key challenges threatening the physical well-being of teachers is poor infrastructure.

The investigation noted that teachers in rural areas are daily confronted by physical health challenges due to poor infrastructure in the schools.

Mapfungautsi Secondary School in Gokwe South is one such school.

A former teacher at the school and Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe National Education and Research Secretary Gerald Tavengwa told 263Chat that some of the classrooms do not have roofs, exposing teachers and students to the vagaries of the weather.

“The situation in many rural schools is dire. Infrastructural challenges are common and they unfortunately threaten the safety of teachers in the classroom and at their staff quarters,” he said.

“Staff quarters are all poorly ventilated. The dust teachers are exposed to lead to the development of respiratory problems or aggravated allergies,” he added.

A Buhera bases teacher who wanted to be identified as the voice of Buhera said some staff quarters at his school have broken window panes and huge cracks.

“Doors have problems and cannot close and lock properly exposing teachers to snake bites and armed robberies. Some staff members at Chiurwi High School in Buhera were attacked by armed robbers and there was an attempted rape because of problematic doors,” he said.

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Poor infrastructure has also led to some schools having roofs of classrooms or staff quarters collapsing, injuring teachers and children.

In 2011, 14-year-old Marble Chakombera died while four others, including her teacher, were injured when the roof of their classroom at Munhondo Secondary School in Zvimba collapsed over them.

 The teacher was seriously injured and had to be transferred to Darwendale Hospital.

Upon visiting the school, the then  Mashonaland West governor Faber Chidarikire described the school as being in a “sorry state” adding that “by mere site, this building is a danger to pupils and staff, and as government, we believe more needs to be done to uplift the standard so that it is safe.”

Substandard classrooms and staff quarters are not unique to Mashonaland West Province but are a common feature in many areas across the country.

Umguza District in Matabeleland North Province has several schools with dilapidated infrastructure that pose a threat to the health and safety of teachers.

Additionally, findings by the Office of the Auditor General Report (OAG) for 2022 indicate that Bindura beer halls and abandoned garages were being used as school classrooms.

While addressing delegates at the National Social Security Authority (NSSA)’s 60th national conference on safety and health at Work, NSSA acting general manager Dr Charles Shava said: “Attaining vision 2030 for an upper middle-income society depends on a healthy and safe worker and if our workers are unsafe, ill, and stressed, then the achievement of any economic boom will be lost.”

Unfortunately, rural teachers are unsafe and stressed by their working and living conditions.

It was also noted that teachers in these areas are at risk of human and wildlife conflicts.

According to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), the areas most affected by human-wildlife conflict are Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland West, Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South and Masvingo.

Statistics from ZimParks indicate that in 2022, human-wildlife conflict resulted in the death of 66 people compared to 68 in 2021.

 In January, a teacher from Lupane, Patience Sibanda was left critically injured following an elephant.

It charged at her and some learners while on their way to school.

In 2019, 48-year-old James Musiwacho stationed at Mweyamutsvene High School in Marange was not as fortunate as elephants trampled him to death.

These cases are a testament to the risks that threaten the safety of teachers in marginalised communities.

In an interview, a teacher in one of the Matabeleland provinces Sukoluhle Ndlovu said teaching in the province comes with unique challenges.

“Ensuring the safety and well-being of educators is paramount, as the threat of encounters with wildlife adds a layer of danger to our daily routines. Occupational safety and health measures must be strengthened to protect teachers and students alike, providing a secure environment for education to thrive,” she said.

The absence of viable medical centres near some rural schools was also a common theme in the investigation.

Health centers are generally inaccessible and under-resourced to deal with emergencies making it difficult for teachers to access quality health services.

Occupational Health and Safety managing consultant Patrick Matira said each school should have a first aid kit and a trained first aider to manage injuries and emergencies until professional medical help arrives.

“Medication should be easily accessible for rural teachers, and health surveillance should not lead to discrimination against workers,” he said.

“Health institutions should conduct outreach programs in marginalised areas to screen teachers for various health issues. Some institutions already offer eye and cancer screenings, among other services.”

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However, the Director of Communications and Advocacy in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education Taungana Ndoro said: “The Ministry is partnering with local hospitals and clinics to ensure teachers in remote areas have access to necessary healthcare resources. We are also training school administrators on identifying and responding to mental health concerns among their teaching staff.”

 Section 29 of the Constitution emphasises the state’s responsibility to ensure that health services are provided to all citizens, focusing on the development of public health services.

It mandates the State to: “Develop and implement policies and measures to promote a healthy environment for its citizens and ensure the establishment and promotion of basic, accessible, and adequate health services throughout the country.”

Unfortunately, some teachers in rural areas are struggling to access this right.

While Zimbabwe is a signatory to the ILO Conventions on OSH and even developed policies, legislation and institutional frameworks at sectoral, organisational and national levels like the National Occupational Safety and Health Policy (ZNOSHP) instituted in August 2014; teachers in rural areas seem side-lined from OSH programs.

This is despite the Education Sector Strategic Plan 2021-2025 being implemented by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education (MOPSE) in alignment with the National Development Strategy (NDS) seeking to ensure universal education coverage.

Research has shown that these challenges are attributable to the government’s failure to adequately fund the education sector.

A 2024 health and education situational report by the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD), a socio-economic justice coalition established to facilitate citizens` involvement in making public policy more pro-people and pro-poor noted that: “Despite increased economic capacity, the government still prioritises military investment over healthcare and education spending. The government`s education and health budget allocations are wanting, worsening the health and education service delivery crisis.”

In 2022, the government allocated 13.4 percent of the total budget to education, rising to 14.2 percent in 2023 and 17.7 percent in 2024, yet still falling short of the 20 percent target set by the 2000 Dakar Declaration.

The figure above shows government spending on the education sector since 2020.

The ZIMCODD report argues that while allocation to education has jumped in 2024, increased volatility of the macroeconomy is leading to late disbursements of allocated funds.

“Also, persistent inflation and ZWL depreciation pressures are pushing market prices, thereby depleting the real value of annual budgets. In percentage terms, the budget allocation would seem lucrative. Yet, after adjusting for currency depreciation, it would be a paltry allocation that does not fit the task of restoring sanity in the public education sector,” read the report in part.

To improve the OSH of teachers in rural areas, Matira recommends that health surveillance should start in schools where teachers work, facilitated by a Safety Representative or committee. “Workers can report any work-related ailments to this committee, which will document health complaints while respecting privacy,” he said.

“A trained representative or first aider will advise the teacher on the appropriate action. The OHS representative or committee must adhere to ethical standards during surveillance.”

Analyst Lazarus Sauti added that the purpose of occupational health and safety programmes in the education sector is to create a safe work environment that promotes peace of mind for teachers and students.

“Schools should implement basic Occupational Health and Safety standards to allow teachers to perform their roles effectively. Occupational safety and health issues affect the personal and health security of teachers.”

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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