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This submission focuses on the impact of lead pollution on children’s rights and the right to education, and particularly relates to articles 24, 28, and 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It updates and complements Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on Zambia of December 2019.

Impact of Lead Pollution on Children’s Rights (articles 24 and 31)

Lead contamination around the former lead and zinc mine in the town of Kabwe continues to have disastrous effects on children’s health, and action is urgently needed to protect child rights. Twenty-seven years after the mine’s closure, tens of thousands of children are at acute risk of severe illness from the extremely high levels of lead in the environment. Medical researchers estimate that over 95 percent of children living in the vicinity of the former mine have elevated blood-lead levels, and about half of children urgently require medical intervention. A recent study in the journal Nature estimates that overall, up to 200,000 people in the vicinity of the former mine have elevated blood lead levels. The legacy of lead in Kabwe has a disproportionate impact on poor children because undernourishment increases the amount of lead the body absorbs, and because many live in informal settlements that lack paved roads and planted areas, so lead dust is a particular hazard.

Government and Donor Response Too Limited in Scope, Neglect Mine Remediation

In December 2019, the government of Zambia began implementing a World Bank-funded program—with significant delay—to address the pollution in Kabwe. UNICEF and the Japanese government have also provided support. The government has begun to provide lead testing and treatment to children; raise awareness around the risks of lead exposure in the community; and has started to remediate homes and one school.

These positive steps efforts are described in the State Report. But they are too limited in scope to bring lasting improvements as described below.

Most notably, the government has failed to address the source of the contamination, the mine’s and smelter’s waste dumps, which contain about 3 million tons of tailings from the mining and 2.5 millions tons of waste from the smelter. Lead dust from the uncovered waste dumps continues to blow over to nearby residential areas and threaten community health. As long as the waste dumps are not cleaned up, other measures are unsustainable, and progress made could be quickly reversed. No meaningful work has been undertaken to remove the source of the contamination or seal the site. Rather, the government has licensed further mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks.

In addition, the clean-up in residential areas will not be comprehensive, according to the government, and it does not plan to pave roads that are spreading lead dust in Kabwe. Children who receive chelation medicine are, therefore, being returned into a contaminated environment, which means that they will risk the same health issues again.

Corporate Responsibility

The government has a duty to ensure that human rights, including child rights, are protected in the context of business operations, and companies have a responsibility to respect child rights in their own operations and in their supply chains, and provide remedies when they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts. 

Kabwe mine was originally owned by British colonial companies. From 1925 to 1974, it was owned by Anglo American and then nationalized until its closure in 1994. There was never a comprehensive clean-up. In October 2020, lawyers from South Africa and the United Kingdom filed a class-action lawsuit in a South African court against Anglo American on behalf of affected children and women of childbearing age in Kabwe. The case is ongoing.

Since the closure of the mine, the government has licensed new mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks to residents. In 2012, the government granted a large-scale mining license for much of the former mine area to a British company, Berkeley Mineral Resources (BMR). In 2018, Jubilee Metals Group, a South African company, entered into a joint venture with BMR and became the designated sole operator of the project; it also acquired BMR’s subsidiary, Enviro Processing Limited (EPL). Jubilee Metals plans to recover zinc, lead, and vanadium from the waste. Waste processing, if not carefully managed, carries the risk of generating additional dust and polluting the water.

In July 2019, the government sent Human Rights Watch a written response to its report’s findings, stating that the government of Zambia, through Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA), “will ensure EPL prepares a full Environmental and Social Impact Assessment.” In its State Report to the CRC, the government also asserts that ZEMA “has made it mandatory for all businesses whose operations would have effect on the environment to submit Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) report before commencement.” However, as far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the company has failed to present an environmental impact assessment nor has it published minutes of the public hearing that it should have done before the commencement of the new project. Jubilee Metals has also not disclosed any information about measures taken to address potential harmful impacts on human rights and the environment in its Kabwe operations.

The Zambian government has also issued several licenses for small-scale mining at the former mine, and there are additional unlicensed mining operations. Small-scale mining for lead poses severe health risks and affects children in Kabwe in distinct ways. First, children risk exposure to particularly high levels of lead when adult family members work at the mine and return home with lead on their body, clothes, tools, or shoes. Second, Human Rights Watch found that older children, ages 16 and 17, also work at these small-scale mines. Third, small-scale mining produces additional dust that can blow into nearby residential areas. The ongoing small-scale mining at the former mine in Kabwe contradicts the Mines and Minerals Development Act, which, according to the State Report, “provides for regulation to ensure that mining activities do not negatively affect children’s rights or endanger environmental, health and other standards.”

UN Experts Letters

In May 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities sent a communication to the government of Zambia expressing concern over the lead contamination and its impact on human rights. The letter was made public on July 26, 2021. The experts also sent letters to Jubilee Metals, which is planning to reprocess metals at the former mine, and to the South African government, seeking information about the human rights impacts of the business. The experts have not received any responses.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government:

  • Has the government of Zambia taken steps to develop a comprehensive remediation plan for the containment or removal of lead waste at Kabwe mine?
  • What has the government of Zambia done to seek technical and financial support for the development and implementation of a comprehensive remediation plan?
  • How does the government of Zambia regulate, monitor, and regularly scrutinize Jubilee Metal’s operations and their impact on children’s rights? Please clarify if Jubilee Metals has been required to submit an environmental impact assessment.
  • Which schools does the government plan to remediate, and what kind of method will be used?
  • Could you provide an update on voluntary lead testing and chelation treatment efforts in Kabwe, including the age range of children tested and treated, and future plans for testing and treating older children and women of reproductive age?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government to:

  • Ensure that those who have suffered adverse impacts on their right to health have access to remedy.
  • Urgently halt all mining operations and conduct a comprehensive remediation process at the former mine site to ensure the source of the contamination is contained or removed; in order to do so, seek technical and financial support for the development and implementation of a comprehensive remediation plan.
  • Require Jubilee Metals to submit and publish an environmental and social impact assessment before starting reprocessing at the former Kabwe mine and to report annually on their human rights and environment due diligence efforts. If the environmental and social impact assessment is approved, the government should publish it on its own website.  
  • Remediate all contaminated schools, homes, and play areas, and report publicly about progress.
  • Provide lead testing and treatment, including chelation therapy, to all children and women of childbearing age in affected neighborhoods.
  • Track cases of child lead poisoning in Kabwe, including mortality, in the government’s Health Management Information system or a separate database.
  • Officially respond to the May 2021 communication by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Access to Education during Covid-19 Pandemic (article 28)

As of August 2021, schools in Zambia had been physically closed for 80 days, and only partially open to certain ages for 72 days, since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, the education of 3.4 million students was affected.

Many students could not access remote education because they lacked television, radio, internet, and, in rural areas, electricity. In June 2020, a headteacher at a public school in a rural farming community told Human Rights Watch that teachers sent lessons though social media and WhatsApp. However, “not every child is linked on a social platform,” he said, noting that rural children in particular have less access to mobile phones than children in urban areas. He said his school’s teachers used their own money for airtime and mobile data to send students assignments and documents.

Students were often left to study on their own. A 15-year-old girl from Kabwe told Human Rights Watch that when her school first closed due to the pandemic, “the headmistress came through the classes and told us to study on our own.” For this, she used the books she already had. This was challenging as “most topics are difficult to understand without the help of a teacher.” She said, “It’s been a little bit nerve-racking. Next year I have my [school leaver] examination and I am thinking I will have to work harder.”

Before the pandemic, 15 percent of children were out of primary school, and as of 2013 (latest statistics available), less than 55 percent of children completed lower secondary school.

Zambia’s Education Act of 2011 guarantees free basic education to every child. The government has committed to provide free and compulsory education for grades 1 to 12 in its national education plans—in particular the Education Sector National Implementation Framework III (2011-2015) and the Free Primary Education Policy (2002)—and it reiterates this in its State Report to the CRC. However, Human Rights Watch found that the Zambian government charged primary and secondary students for the online education it provided during Covid-19 school closures.

On April 20, 2020, Zambia’s Ministry of General Education launched two websites: the first, E-Learning Portal, offers courses in core subjects for students grades 7 to 12; the second, Smart Revision, provides practice tests to help students in grades 7, 9, and 12 prepare for national examinations. Both websites require children to pay a monthly subscription fee before they can access learning content. Each course on E-Learning Portal costs ZMW 5 (US$0.26), although students are nudged by the website’s design towards subscription bundles that are progressively more expensive at higher grades. For example, the website advertises the option to “Subscribe To All At K35 Only” (at a cost of US$1.84) for students in grades 10-12, even though only three subjects are available to take—Biology, Chemistry, and Mathematics—that would cost much less to purchase separately. Smart Revision also features similarly tiered pricing, and charges a monthly fee of ZMW 10 (US$0.53) for students in grade 7, ZMW 20 (US$1.05) for grade 9 students, and ZMW 30 (US$1.58) for students in grade 12.

Since students must use these websites to learn core content and prepare for high-stakes national examinations during school closures, these fees constitute a direct cost and therefore amount to a financial barrier to education. They come in addition to the high costs of internet access, electricity, and devices that students and their families would have to pay for before they could even access either of the government’s websites.[1] Access to the internet in Zambia is prohibitively expensive for many, especially for the poorest children and those living in rural areas. According to the Inclusive Internet Index report, Zambia ranks 98 out of 120 countries surveyed in the cost of internet access relative to income.  As of 2015, 58 percent of Zambia’s population lived below the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day; poverty is estimated to have increased with widespread job losses and rising prices during the pandemic, making the internet even less affordable for most children and their families.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee asks the government:

  • How does the government plan to remedy learning time lost by children due to Covid-19 related school closures, in particular for students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and students living in rural areas?
  • What is the government doing to increase access to reliable and affordable internet services, electricity, and internet-accessible devices for children who need them as part of realizing their right to education?

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it call upon the government of Zambia to:

  • Eliminate fees associated with E-Learning Portal and Smart Revision, and ensure that primary and secondary education, including remote learning during Covid-19 school closures, is free of all indirect and direct costs, and accessible for all children.
  • Ensure there is individual follow-up for children who do not return to schools when they reopen following Covid-19 related closures, and try to reengage them.
  • Provide affordable, reliable, quality, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access to the internet for educational content and capable devices for every student.
  • Develop or expand device affordability and availability initiatives for schools and families, with support targeted at the most vulnerable children, and develop and expand initiatives to secure and equitably distribute devices for learning to schools.

[1] Both websites were launched in partnership with Zamtel, the state-owned telecommunications provider and one of the three mobile internet providers in the country. While Zamtel announced that it would zero-rate both websites, Human Rights Watch notes that children would realistically first need internet access to even be aware of the government’s websites.

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