Growing up in the American south is at once a spectacular privilege and a frustrating experience for a young girl. The boys tend to be rather better gentlemen than anywhere else in the world, but Southern decorum also means that girls can’t always do many of the things that boys get away with. Inevitably, living with this daily disparity turned me into a bit of a feminist, and I’ve become increasingly interested in gender issues in international development.
This interest has been reaffirmed by my time in Nepal, as seven of the eight child laborers that I met last week were girls. Impoverished Nepali parents send their daughters away more often than their sons. Female child labor is such a big problem that they have a special name for the girls: Kamalari.
Because of this discrimination, I left for my field visit rather predisposed to tell the stories of the girls that I would meet. But, as always, Nepal surprised me. On two separate occasions, I was told to remember the boys. Apparently, many NGOs see the need for programs that target young girls, so they fill that need. But in so doing, these programs refuse to fund many young boys who share the same plight as these girls.
I was meeting with the Child Friendly Village Committee of Tarkapur, and began the conversation with my usual questions: “Are there any returned child laborers in this village?” “How about parents who sent their children away?” “Now that the children are back from working in urban areas, do they stay in school?” “What is your drop-out rate?”
Ram Kumar was singled out as a drop-out, right in front of about 50 people who were discussing child labor, education, and children’s rights. He had reached class 7 before quitting school, which is a pretty high class for a 14-year old in rural Nepal. Sharada, a BASE staff member and my translator, and I spoke with Ram quietly so that he would not be too embarrassed.
“So Ram, why did you drop out of school?”
“I have no uniform, and no money to pay for a new uniform.”
“Why doesn’t the Child Friendly Village committee pay for your uniform? They have a public fund to help kids go to school.”
“Room to Read (the NGO that sends children to school in Tarkapur) supports only girls. There is no funding for the boys. I want to go back to school, but I am too poor.”
I thought I had uncovered something scandalous. Had the tides turned so much that boys were now discriminated against in rural Nepal?
Then I addressed the entire Child Friendly Village Committee. “Can you not find some funding to help boys like Ram Kumar go to school, too?”
The meeting erupted into a cacophony of Nepali arguments. I had unwittingly caused a stir, and I sat in confusion for quite some time as Sharada ingested the conversation before relaying its contents back to me. Apparently, the CFV management committee had given Ram Kumar a scholarship for books, supplies, and a uniform some time ago, but he still did not attend school although he said that he would.
Who is to blame for Ram Kumar’s truancy? Although everyone in the village knew that he was still not attending school, the management committee offered him the scholarship once and just left it at that. His parents were uneducated themselves, and they did not force him to go to school. Ram himself ought to know better, and he should make himself attend school even if he does not want to. But he is a fourteen year old boy, and I know several American teenagers who would also prefer the freedom of dropping out to compulsory attendance at a public school.
Ram is not a returned child laborer, but another girl from who had been a laborer also dropped out at age 16. At least she was training to become a tailor, but tailoring is almost certainly all that she will ever do. Ram Kumar could not give a satisfactory answer when I asked what he does with his time when he’s not in school, but he’s definitely not pursuing vocational training. So whom should I believe? Ram, when he says he wants to go to school but can’t afford it, or the committee, who say that they funded him but he refused to go? Someone isn’t telling the full truth, but regardless of who is right and who is wrong, I came away having learned two things:
Children’s education is the responsibility of entire communities. If parents let their kids down, then other mechanisms must be in place so that children do not slip through the cracks.
Women’s rights are terribly important, but only because they are humans, just like men. Supporting young girls does not mean that we can forget the boys.
Posted By Karie Cross
Posted Aug 20th, 2010