Poor, marginalised, illiterate girls and women have little access to resources and opportunities. Cultural and socioeconomic barriers to female education must be tackled to change this
Nestled between the Asian economic giants China and India, Nepal shares with India a caste system in which discrimination is still a fact of everyday life. Its population of 30 million includes more than 100 ethnic groups, nearly as many languages and 60 castes and sub-castes. Caste and gender remain the major barriers to education. If you are a girl from a Dalit or an indigenous family, you are unlikely to go to school or complete primary education.
At the other end of the spectrum, power and money is largely concentrated in the hands of the Brahmin caste, including most senior politicians and the new Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai.
Since the abdication of the king in 2006 and the end of the decade-long civil war, the political situation has been in a state of turmoil. No party secured a majority in the 2008 general elections, although the Maoists secured the largest number of seats. Since then, successive short-lived governments have failed to resolve fundamental issues, such as how to devolve power to a local level, disarming the Maoists ex-combatants, and writing a new constitution.
The caretaker education minister and many of the parliamentarians who I met during my VSO placement last month, admit that education does not get the attention it deserves. Resolving the country’s political problems overshadows other priorities. Moreover, many politicians send their children to private schools in the capital, and the Kathmandu-based political elite rarely visit their constituencies.
This is compounded by an absence of elected local government, which has led to the politicisation of schools. Whereas school governors in the UK are feted as the largest volunteer force in the country, the reputation of Nepal’s equivalents stands in stark contrast. The chair or membership of school management committees is often sought to assert and retain power locally.
Local education officials therefore spend most of their time firefighting political problems. As a result, the capacity to implement change and drive up standards is poor. Teacher management is weak and teacher recruitment is often political. A previous education minister was sacked for taking backhanders for appointing temporary teachers.
However, there are some flickers of light. Despite the political instability, recent progress has been made in enrolling children in primary education in Nepal. The World Bank estimates that in 2009 the enrollment rate in primary education was 90%, compared with 74% four years earlier. Local community leaders at the primary schools I visited proudly explained to me their door-to-door campaign, which has dramatically boosted school numbers.
Keeping girls in school beyond puberty is nevertheless a major challenge. As the mothers’ committee of a primary school in the Rupandehi district of Nepal’s flatlands told me, girls’ education is not a priority for many families. Their daughters are often needed to work in the fields and at home. Many are married at an early age. At the same school, I met two thirteen-year-old married schoolgirls. I doubt that they will ever see the inside of a secondary school classroom.
Child marriage is not the only problem. Chaupadi – a practice in which girls face restrictions during menstruation – is widespread, even in Kathmandu. The Nepalese government is working with the UK Department for International Development (DfID), the country’s largest bilateral donor, and NGOs to tackle these underlying cultural and socioeconomic barriers, as well as getting a handle on more practical issues. According to Unicef, only around a third of schools have separate toilets for girls. Senior officials at the ministry of education disputed these figures but admitted to me that there is a shortage and have a plan to provide all schools with separate toilets by 2015.
The power to drive through these changes at a local level requires a stable central government, effective local administration and politicians willing and able to prioritise education.
Agreements on the country’s new constitution, its political system and disarming Maoist ex-combatants must be urgently concluded. Only then can a stable Nepalese government emerge. A government capable of implementing change and driving improvements.
Poor, marginalised, illiterate girls and women have little access to resources and opportunities. Breaking the current political deadlock is the key to unlocking a better future for them. And for a better, more prosperous Nepal.
(Emma Reynolds is a UK MP for Wolverhampton North East. She spent time in Nepal with VSO’s parliamentary volunteering schemeSource:http://www.theguardian.com)