MAPOTENG – For Rethabile Pesa, the most painful part of her day is the mornings, when she watches her age mates going to school while doing her chores.
Narrating her plight to a delegation that included journalists and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representatives recently, the 16-year-old said she dropped out of school after her grandparents were unable to afford her secondary school education.
Rethabile and her three siblings, aged 13, 11 and eight years old, started living with their maternal grandparents following their parents’ divorce “many years ago”.
Her mother eventually relocated to South Africa in search of employment and had not been heard from since.
Their survival now depends on the Social Protection Programme engineered by UNICEF and government of Lesotho.
The programme was first introduced in 2008 to respond to challenges facing children in the country, especially in relation to health and education.
Potential beneficiaries of the programme are registered in the National Information System for Social Assistance (NISA) after a community census. The most needy people are then identified through a community categorisation programme which classifies families according to the well-off, middle, poor and ultra-poor categories.
After a verification process, and with funds permitting, eligible children from poor and ultra-poor families are enrolled under the programme for cash assistance.
Generally, families with one to two children get M360, three to five get M600 while five and more receive M700 in three-month periods.
For their part, the Pesa family get M600 on a quarterly basis. Although the money is meant to ensure the four children go to school and to cover their medical expenses, Rethabile now stays at home.
“All I want is to become a teacher and help transform the lives of people because children need to have a good education in order to succeed in life and break the circle of poverty,” a visibly emotional Rethabile said.
Asked why she was crying, she said her dream of becoming a teacher had become unattainable.
“It really breaks my heart every morning when I have to watch children of the same age as me dressed in their school uniforms and going to school while all I do is to cook, collect water and clean the house.”
Rethabile’s siblings are still going to school because primary school education is free and compulsory in Lesotho since 2005.
“I sat for the Primary School Leaving Certificate in 2015 and had a third class pass. I had to repeat the same level because my grandparents did not have money to pay for my secondary education.
“I passed the same level last year. So I now sit at home all day doing nothing, with my dream of becoming a teacher fading away.”
Rethabile’s grandmother and caregiver – ‘Masetoromo Pesa – said they could not afford to pay her school fees, adding that the M600 quarterly grant could barely cover the four children’s food and clothing needs.
“The oldest is not going to school because we cannot afford to fund her education,” Ms Pesa said.
“The children’s mother went to South Africa three years ago to look for employment and we have not heard from her.
“We depend on the M600 to buy food and clothes for the children. Unfortunately, the other three children may also drop out after finishing primary school.”
Asked if she knew what the M600 grant was meant for, Ms Pesa said the money was intended for food and clothing.
“I am not registered as a caregiver and am not the one who goes to collect the money. My husband is the person responsible for that,” she said.
Her husband, Molemohi Pesa, was also of the view that the grant was meant for food and clothing.
“It is meant for buying clothes for the children and to ensure we get them all their basic needs,” he said.
UNICEF Social Policy Officer Mookho Thaane-Ramasike said 38 of the 64 targeted councils countrywide were already receiving the child grant assistance.
She said the programme, which was launched in 2008, was only meant to keep children in school and to attend to their medical needs.
“We are targeting 360 households and 180 of them in 38 councils are already benefitting from this programme,” Ms Thaane-Ramasike said.
“The programme is intended for under-age children to stay in school and have access to health services. It is meant to ensure that the nutrition lessons provided at the healthcare centres are adhered to at the home level.”
She said engagements with the government to increase the grants had been ongoing “for some years” to factor in inflation.
Ms Thaane-Ramasike also explained that they had established Village Assistance Committees (VAC), to ensure the money was used for the intended purposes only.
“There are clear procedures to be followed when reporting families suspected of misusing the grants.
“VACs also make follow-ups to ensure that such problems are addressed at the early stages.”
Child-headed families also received their own grants, she said, adding that no families were allowed to receive the money on their behalf.
“We also added emergency top-ups to address other pressing matters that may be brought to our attention. It is, however, worrying that 60 percent of the grant monies were spent on food.
“It shows that there is a serious food security challenge hence the decision to introduce the top-up facility,” added Ms Thaane-Ramasike.
For her part, Berea Social Protection Programme Manager ‘Matumelo Letlala said while the grants were not enough to address the needs of the children, they were going a long way in addressing the challenges faced by children from poor and ultra-poor families.
“There are also other forms of help like the education scholarships. There is however a need to reassess this programme to ensure that children benefit,” she said.
Meanwhile, an officer responsible for Mapoteng area – ‘Mateboho Khesa – said there were many households receiving the grants in the area.
“While these households are benefitting from this programme, sometimes we have to bring police officers to help us address the misuse of these grants and this has worked for us,” Ms Khesa said, adding that households missing three consecutive quarterly payments would be removed from the programme.
According to Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) report on Lesotho Child Grant Programme and Linking Food Security to Social (LFSSP), more than one programme would make a stronger impact on the food security of beneficiary households as compared to each programme in isolation.
“The programme was rolled out in Litjotjela and Malaoaneng Community Councils in Leribe district; it lasted six months, and was intentionally provided to 799 households eligible for a large-scale social cash transfer programme – the Child Cash Grant (CCG) Programme,” the report noted.
“Overall we find positive effects of the programmes on homestead gardening and productive agricultural activities. Many of these observed outcomes appear driven by the combination of the two programmes. Namely, an additional year of CGP in combination with the LFSSP achieved many outcomes for which two years of receiving the CGP alone did not.”