Nepal: Fighting the odds for an education

News and Press Release
Originally published
MAILA, 23 November 2008 (IRIN) - Lal Byura KC,13, attends Chhetrapal Primary School in Lolibada settlement. The school is not much to look at - a few classrooms with dirt floors and hardly any desks or chairs. It is perched on a hill in Maila Village Development Committee (VDC) (sub-district), in Humla District in Mid-West Nepal, one of the poorest areas in the country.

The school has 219 students, 100 of them girls, and is six days away from the nearest road. It receives few of the educational materials that are basic to a typical primary school, in part because it is the most distant and remote school from district headquarters, according to officials.

Nonetheless, for Lal and countless other girls in similar schools in this remote region, it holds the promise of a better life.

"I like to go to school," Lal told IRIN, "not just because my friends are there, but mainly because I get to read and write and to understand more.

"I want to be a teacher when I grow up," the fifth grader said, but she bemoaned the fact she was increasingly missing class. Such absences are becoming more frequent, she said, as she grows older and stronger.

"When I was in grades one to four, I always went to school, but now many days I have to stay home and work," Lal said. "My mother died five years ago and my father asks me to help with the planting and the harvesting of the millet and in raising the goats and the cows.

"Whenever I miss school, the head teacher [Devi Prasad Sharma] visits my father urging him to let me attend class," said Lal. "But my father says he needs me to work."

The reason is poverty. The area has endured several years of poor harvests, with particularly heavy crop losses due to drought and then excessive rain, hail and landslides in 2008. The rice and millet harvests were particularly hard hit.

"We are eating less and less," says Lal, "a bit more this month than last, but only because some of the millet has been harvested."

Gender bias

In rural Nepal, young girls such as Lal are valued most as labourers in the fields. Any hope of an advanced education is ruled out unless the girls have wealthy families, said school officials.

In Lal's primary school, 45 percent of students are girls but in Maila's secondary school, Darmodaya, 89 (27 percent) of its 327 students are girls, said the principal, Hari Prasad Bhuwai.

According to statistics from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Nepal, the national enrolment ratio for girls in primary school is 87.4 percent but by secondary school it drops to 32.8 percent. In remote areas like Maila, the decline is even more precipitous given the demand for agricultural labour and the gender bias against girls, said UNICEF.

However, it is likely that Lal will be able to attend school on a regular basis for now as her father worked from April until August on a World Food Programme food-for-work project implemented by the Development Project Service Center (DEPROSC), a local NGO. Now he is working on a WFP/DEPROSC project to repair and upgrade a 9.2km mule trail for which his family will receive 160kg of rice.

"This makes me happy," says Lal. "It means for the time being I will not have to work in the fields and I can go to school full-time and with a full stomach."

It is hardly a long-term solution for her educational goals, but many residents in Maila VDC hope food-for-work infrastructural projects will, over time, improve agricultural productivity, nutritional levels and enable more girls to go to school full-time.