January 24th marks the International Day of Education, and it has us reflecting on the many challenges that children and youth face in accessing education in Nepal. Although significant progress has been made in the last 20 years, approximately 770,000 children aged 5-12 do not attend school (Unicef). The COVID-19 crisis has hit Nepal’s education sector hard. While students in other countries are able to attend their classes online, network access is inaccessible to many families in Nepal. School closures mean many school-aged children will enter the workforce, and in many cases stay there even after schools open. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, there are some obvious, geographical barriers like mountains, jungles and rivers that cut communities off from schools. There are young children that must be brave and ride home-made ziplines to get to school every day. What might be surprising, is that these children could be considered the lucky ones by thousands of children that donot get to go to school. Girls especially are likely to miss out on an education in Nepal. Across the country, 72% of men, but only 49% of women, can read and write. This can happen for a variety of reasons:
- Some parents don’t value girls’ education because their daughters will grow up, get married and leave them. When daughters get married, they traditionally go to live with their husband’s family, and care for their in-laws as they age, rather than their own parents. Sons are seen as a better investment because they will grow up to provide for their parents. Instead of going to school, these girls are often expected to help with household chores.
- Some parents can’t afford costs like uniforms, books and other supplies. Average household income in urban areas is the equivalent of about 230 Euro and only 195 Euro in rural areas. After shelter, food and medicine are paid for, there is very little left. In some cases, children must go to work instead of school to help their parents make ends meet.
- Some girls drop out when they start menstruating because they don’t have the products or safe, hygienic facilities to manage their period while attending school. Menstruation remains a serious taboo in Nepal, and many adolescent girls are made to feel ashamed of their bodies and reproductive cycles. Because menstruation is considered “dirty”, menstruating women and girls don’t get any support to carry on their daily lives. Many don’t have access to menstrual hygiene products that allow them to be mobile, and even if they do, school buildings aren’t built with private girls’ toilets to use for changing and cleaning pads. As girls stay home every time they get their period, they fall farther and farther behind on their lessons, until they just stop going.
- Some girls may even drop out of school to get married and become mothers. In rural areas, 18% of girls aged 15-19 are pregnant or already mothers, twice as many as in urban areas (DHS, 2011). The same survey found that more than half of women in Nepal get married before age 18.
While the exact causes vary, the results are the same: those who can’t read, write or do basic math have very few options for finding work and earning an income, accessing information and are put at a general disadvantage. Women with more education tend to have fewer children that they can then invest more time and resources in. Women with literacy skills are able to support themselves financially and leave abusive homes. Education also gives girls and women the tools they need to become politically active changemakers and leaders in their communities and countries, adding more women’s voices in important decision-making processes.
So on this day, let’s think especially about how we all can contribute in our own ways to the goal of 100% school enrollment rates across Nepal for both girls and boys.