About 94 percent of Zimbabwe's rural schools - where most children are educated - failed to open this year, the UN Children's Fund said on 10 February 2009.
The education system, once viewed as the finest in sub-Saharan Africa, has become a casualty of the country's economic collapse and political infighting.
Tsitsi Singizi, UNICEF's spokesman in Zimbabwe, told IRIN the priority of the new unity government should be to salvage the education system. "The infrastructure for education is still there, but it needs to be brought back from the brink," she urged.
The leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, is expected to be inaugurated as prime minister on 11 February and the a unity government, agreed by ZANU-PF and the MDC on 15 September 2008, is expected to begin its work of reconstructing Zimbabwe.
"Children in rural areas already live on the margins, many are orphaned, a huge number depend on food aid, they struggle on numerous fronts," UNICEF's Representative in Zimbabwe, Roeland Monasch, said in a statement. "Now these children are being denied the only basic right that can better their prospects. It is unacceptable."
Widespread disruption of schools began in the aftermath of the March 2008 elections and continued beyond a presidential run-off poll in June, which was not recognized internationally because of the state-sponsored political violence.
After the elections, many teachers failed to return to their posts as a consequence of salaries made worthless by hyperinflation and a fear of continued political violence.
In 2008, school attendance rates dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent, UNICEF said, and the few schools that opened in 2009 are charging fees in foreign currency, making them unaffordable to most citizens.