After the devastating earthquakes of April and May 2015, I traveled across Nepal, coordinating relief work in remote villages. In the Sindhupalchok district, one of the most devastated areas, I met Manju. She is around 11 or 12 years old with an intelligent demeanor, fierce brown eyes, rough hands and dwindling hope.
Before the earthquake, she attended school, which was fairly uncommon for a farming girl like her. She considered herself fortunate. Following the earthquake, Manju’s good fortune ended. Now, she barely has time to cook, clean, complete her chores, graze the animals, forage for food and tend to the fields. Education, especially for a girl, is simply not prioritized by her struggling family of seven, living in a makeshift shelter that barely fits a single bed and a few cooking pots salvaged from the collapsed home that crushed Manju’s grandparents.
Many of Manju’s childhood friends have left the village in search for a better life, their ancestral homes destroyed. Between unending chores and maintenance of the flimsy shelter that has become her new home, she barely has time to wonder where they are.
With more than half a million homes and 30,000 educational facilities (including more than 6000 schools) damaged, the number of out-of-school students like Manju is increasing. Demands for labor in the house, fields or market is leading children, especially those in higher grades, to become absent more frequently and eventually drop out altogether. Lack of hygienic sanitation facilities and child marriages, still common in Nepal, imposes further risks for young girls like Manju. Although they have survived the earthquakes, they retain deep wounds, psychologically if not physically, due to devastating losses of homes, family members and friends. Constantly fearing for their lives and regularly witnessing destruction in every direction has left children like Manju disillusioned about life and unmotivated to study.
This is a shame after how far Nepal has come. After democracy was established in 1951, education was made accessible to the public. The adult literacy rate at the time was a mere 5% with only 10,000 students and 300 schools in the entire country. Then, the National Education Sector Plan (NESP) of 1971, funded by USAID, empowered districts to open schools locally, opening more educational opportunities nationally.
My father is an example of individuals who benefited. He was the first person in his agriculture-dependent family to attain education. In 1978 as a 13-year-old, he journeyed 100 kilometers from his remote village to Kathmandu, the capital city, to attend school. Today, he is a scholar and professor in the United States. He was able to persevere, defeat the odds and attain a future that the 13-year-old version of him could never have imagined.
Like my father, many others around Nepal achieved their dreams in the last few decades and worked hard to secure a brighter future. By 2015, the adult literacy rate jumped to 63.9% (female: 53.1%; male: 76.4%). Despite high levels of poverty and hunger and ranking 145 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2014, Nepal made steady progress.
However, the devastating earthquakes of 2015, along with hundreds of aftershocks, shook the very beings of the Nepalese, along with their homes. Nearly a million people, 3% of Nepal’s population, were pushed into poverty as a direct result of the earthquakes. The disastrous effects on education, child labor, and health will be understood in time but as a developing country with an extremely low-income economy, Nepal’s troubles have only begun.
Nepal has received tremendous support from the international community and Nepalese citizens themselves, particularly the youth, have taken direct action. However, the work has only begun. Manju’s school, like schools around the country (particularly in the 14 most affected districts), has been transformed into rubble and makeshift structures constructed with bamboo sticks and tin sheets. The prolonged blockade at the Nepal-India border has further worsened the situation as Nepal now faces severe shortages of “fuel, food, medicines and vaccines”.
Certainly, Nepal requires assistance in many areas: health, nutrition, education, shelter and countless others. There is no single solution that will lift Nepal out of poverty or reverse the disastrous effects of the earthquakes. Investing in targeted community projects and promoting education, however, will help Nepal over the long term. For example, non-profit organizations like One Step Projects and Trek to Teach (both of which I have personally worked with) facilitate targeted, measurable impact in the lives of children like Manju.
Pointing at a gigantic puddle filling the only standing structure in her school, Manju jokes that their school now has a swimming pool. Her laughter haunts me. Her smile is infectious but her humor tragic, considering all she has gone through. Her future is uncertain. If she stays out of school for too long, she may have no option but to embrace the agricultural lifestyle. She may never grasp the extent of her true abilities or receive the same opportunities that individuals like my father did.
As Manju and I gaze inside a collapsing school building exposed to the elements, chewing on some titaura (local fruit leather that I had brought for the village kids as a present), we notice that teachers have continued to teach, bravely demonstrating the strength and perseverance Nepalese are known for. Meanwhile, the number of students attending decreases day by day. If we don’t act now, those students may never return.
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