The Syndicat libre des travailleurs de l’enseignement du Burundi (STEB), thanks to financial support from Education International’s COVID-19 Solidarity Fund, was able to run an important awareness-raising campaign on taking protective measures against COVID-19 and on unionisation in schools, and to organise a conference to take stock of the situation in the country’s education sector.
“The members of STEB are living in fear of COVID-19”, said Remy Nsengiyumva, the president of STEB. “We are living through unique times: people continue to work as usual. No containment measures have been put in place, as if Burundi were the only country in the world spared by the pandemic.”
Public authorities fail to provide information on COVID-19
As the public authorities have not put any rigorous measures in place, we fear the worst and are right to do so, because COVID-19, which was initially reported only in Bujumbura, is now spreading to every other province in the country”, he said.
He also deplored the fact that there is very little information available on the pandemic in the country. The authorities, not being able to manage the epidemic, are playing down the impact of COVID-19 infections and contamination and are providing limited information.
COVID-19 has come at a time when the union faces other challenges, “including organising members through awareness sessions for recruitment, retaining members who still live in fear because they joined the union, and building our leadership, communication, and negotiation skills”, he added.
What STEB has done since the start of the health crisis
This is why, explained Nsengiyumva, as soon as the pandemic was announced, STEB immediately brought together union leaders from every province to provide them with information on COVID-19 and to raise awareness on protective measures. These representatives were asked to do the same in their respective provinces.
In addition, STEB has tried to keep in touch with its members. It has set up a COVID-19 WhatsApp group where members are invited to express themselves freely about the health crisis.
“Even though members and their students are aware of the epidemic and try, as far as they can, to take protective measures, there is still concern, as care for those who are already infected seem to be non-existent. Teachers feel uncomfortable when students ask them questions, especially about the medical care of people showing symptoms of COVID-19, those with the disease, and people living with them”, Nsengiyumva stressed.
For this reason, STEB applied for funding from Education International’s COVID-19 Solidarity Fund. This application was accepted and enabled STEB to organise two major projects.
Raising awareness of protection against COVID-19 and organising in schools
STEB wanted to meet its members in their communes and have a thorough exchange of views on the pandemic, the risks involved, the protective measures to be taken, and to listen to their concerns and requests regarding their health and safety and that of their pupils.
“We want to give them moral support during this health crisis, and in the aftermath of the political elections, which were followed by a lot of changes”, said the leader of STEB.
The first phase took place in August in 8 of the 18 provinces in the country. The funds from Education International helped the union to visit the provinces to meet its members and union representatives in the municipalities, and talk to them about unionisation and, importantly, how to fight against COVID-19. The second phase began on 26 September and will end in December 2020.
STEB acknowledges that this has been very fruitful and has resulted in:
- the recruitment of new members.
- an increase in the members’ confidence in their union leaders.
- the creation of a platform to exchange ideas on preventive measures to be taken against COVID-19.
Conference on the state of education in Burundi
In addition, the union was able to hold a conference to discuss two topics: “Evaluating and improving the status of the teaching profession” and “How to improve COVID-19 prevention measures in schools”. This was held on 10 September in the capital Bujumbura, the day after the union’s National Congress. 200 delegates and 52 STEB partners attended.
Nsengiyumva was pleased that the conference “was a great success, as the discussions helped us to formulate some of our grievances to be presented to the Government of Burundi. It was also an opportunity to gain the trust of our partners and convince the Government of the importance that STEB attaches to providing our children with a high-quality education”.
As STEB had hoped, the conference was also “an opportunity to lobby all those involved in education, mainly the education authorities, to take appropriate measures to provide higher quality education, and better living and working conditions for teachers. Also, the education authorities will now be able to take more appropriate and informed decisions that could save more lives during this worrying health crisis”.
Nsengiyumva also said that the media coverage had enabled the union to inform all its members and teachers of the status of the demands being made by the union, and was pleased that protective measures against COVID-19 were being improved in schools.