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Nepal's education system fights an uphill battle

A holistic approach is required to make a difference for the country's children

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Updated: November 15, 2016 06:02 AM GMT
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Nepal's education system fights an uphill battle

Nepalese students walk past damaged buildings to school in Bhaktapur on the outskirts of Kathmandu on May 31, 2015 following the devastating earthquake that killed over 8,600 people, and damaged nearly 8,000 schools and 30,000 classrooms. (Photo by AFP) 

Nepal is currently repairing thousands of schools that were damaged in the 2015 earthquake, but the education system remains as dysfunctional as ever. And, for vulnerable sections of society, shabby schooling offers them nothing but the chance to repeat their poverty, generation after generation.

During several visits to schools in remote regions I found that government policies were not being enacted, incompetent teachers and school management committees frozen by infighting. Is it any wonder than nearly half of Nepalese children will never finish high school?

I recently visited a school in remote west Nepal where minority Dalit children, from the former untouchable castes within Nepalese and Indian society, were totally separated from the majority ethnic Janajati children. It seemed that the segregation was supported by both parents and teachers.

What a failure of the government's inclusive education policy that was supposed to rid society of discrimination along caste and tribal lines. Worse still is that school text books are still unavailable in languages spoken by different tribal communities.

It seems little effort has been made to implement the government's "Education for All" program with its goals that guarantee "the right of indigenous people and linguistic minorities to basic and primary education through their mother tongue." 

Most poor families from tribal or Dalit backgrounds are unaware that their rights are being trampled upon. They don't have the luxury of learning their rights or planning for the future as they are constantly working to find the most rudimentary necessities.

In such families, children are needed to help generate income. Many leave school to become casual laborers, domestic workers or migrate to India for seasonal work. Parents think it is better for their children to work rather than attend costly schools.

The government program to provide students with free textbooks and tuition fees does not do enough to help families struggling to survive. For them, the cost of having one less worker in the family is too much. And they would still have to pay for exams and school uniforms.

If they do opt to send a child to school it will usually be a male child. After all, girls will be married and go to live with their in-laws so why bother?

Nepal has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world with 37 percent of women marrying before the age of 18 and 10 per before 15 even though the legal age of marriage is 20-years-old. 

If girls are to receive an education then entrenched beliefs will have to change. In many rural communities, people believe that if a girl is married before she begins mensuration, or if children get married while their parents are still alive, a door in heaven opens for them.

If a Nepalese family is lucky enough to send their child to a private school to learn English, they may still be disappointed. Despite charging fees over US$15 per month, most teachers in private schools are young, inexperienced and underpaid and their students graduate speaking only fragmented and broken English. 

Government schools have received a huge amount of funding from multiple sources but their efforts to improve the education system have been inconsistent, especially at the management level.

I recently visited a public school and found the principle drunk in his office. The school management committee allowed him to keep his job out of pure apathy. They said his neglect was typical and firing him would not make a difference.

Members of school management committees often come from different political parties and get locked in petty squabbles at the cost of taking action. They do not hire enough teachers and when they do, they make appointments based on nepotism rather than a candidate's qualifications.

The schools with the best reputations are the church-run schools. They tend to reduce the gap between rich and poor by making high quality education available at a more realistic price. But some unscrupulous private schools take advantage of this by giving themselves Christian names.

For all the people who rely on Nepal's damaged public school system a decent education is an unfulfilled wish. A third of school buildings still need repair work after being damaged in the 2015 earthquake. The Nepalese government estimated that US$39.706 million was needed for education institutions to fully recover after the earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people.

If things are to improve, the ongoing rebuilding efforts must been seen as more than a chance to improve buildings because, without tackling the challenges within, any improvements will be superficial, and the core will be as rotten as ever.

Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.


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