Kathmandu’s youth are an ambitious bunch—their strong desire for training and skill development reminds me of the North American grad school grind. When I lived in Central America, nobody cared about the degrees that might or might not hang from my wall, but here, identity and self-esteem appear to be much more tied up in educational attainment.
The practical result of this preoccupation is wonderful for a book lover like me. The capital is awash with quality English-language bookstores selling (comparatively) cheap Indian editions of the latest fiction, biography, history, reportage, and business bestsellers. A fair chunk of my summer budget has been reserved for stocking up before returning to pricey D.C.
But the reality of Nepal’s education system does not square with the enthusiasm of its students. Indeed, for a nation of top-notch bookshops, it’s hard to believe that the literacy rate is a measly 54%. Only 81% of primary school-aged children actually go to school, as indicated by 10-year-old rickshaw attendant that took my seven rupees this morning. At the secondary level, the enrollment rate drops to 60%. (Source: UNESCO)
In rural areas, schools and teachers have been targeted by Maoist forces. Schools themselves are viewed as recruitment grounds and teachers are seen as symbols of government authority. Students are forcibly sent to indoctrination camps while teachers that fail to show the requisite support are beaten or killed. If parents or school officials do not cooperate, the school is bombed. It’s impossible to calculate the terrible toll that the 10-year conflict has taken on rural educational infrastructure and skilled human resources.
As for higher education, Nepali universities are incredibly politicized, a situation that has been exploited by political parties and resulted in a great deal of wastage. This is much more serious than what you might associate with a politically active campus stateside: in the last two months I’ve read about everything from sit-ins to riots protesting things like test scores, degree equivalence, the political affiliation of a professor, and the right to enter the next level of study. Indeed, it’s a miracle that any classes actually take place.
Little wonder, then, that most intelligent and ambitious Nepalis are obsessed with the idea of studying abroad. Approximately half of the newspaper and billboard advertising space in Kathmandu is given over to “Education Consultants” of dubious quality that promise miracles like I-20s for broke students and sky-high GRE scores for folks that can barely speak English.
But what about the segment of the population for whom leaving the country is not a realistic option? What about the Dalit? Of course, the fact that most Dalits are poor and live in rural areas means that they are less likely to attend school in the first place. Those that actually make it to school are subjected to humiliating abuse, exclusion, and discrimination. The result of this situation is shocking: according to the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO), the literacy rate in the Dalit community is only 16%; for Dalit women, it is an abysmal 7%.
Recently, the government has made promises and taken small steps to improve Dalit access to education. Not surprisingly, these initiatives have been subject to corruption and have not had much of an impact. JMC has documented cases of scholarship money intended for Dalit pupils being withheld and misspent by school authorities. Moreover, fees are a small portion of the cost of attending school: expenses like uniforms, salary supplements, lunch, and foregone labor put basic education out of reach for many Dalit families.
Increasing the access to and quality of education in Nepal is an absolutely critical component of the Dalit movement’s agenda for change. Education is a right in itself, but it is also a platform for awareness and assertion of other rights. Literacy broadens horizons and critical thinking skills facilitate challenges to the status quo.
In this sense, education is a catalyst for long-term change within the Dalit community itself and between Dalits and higher-caste Nepalis. Along with reservations and land reform, education is one of the key areas where Dalit activists are pushing for far-reaching reform. For the sake of Nepal’s long-term development, let us hope that the powers that be heed their call.
Posted By Nicole Cordeau (Nepal)
Posted Aug 3rd, 2014