Final reflections on the ENGAGE project in Nepal

26 October 2023 by Dibya Karki and Shikha Shrestha, VSO Nepal

The Empowering a New Generation of Adolescent Girls with Education (ENGAGE) project began in 2018 and aimed to empower out-of-school, marginalised girls and children with disabilities through education and livelihood opportunities. Some specific expectations at the start of the project included:
• Out-of-schools girls and children with disabilities would be enrolled in non-formal education classes and transition to the formal education and livelihood skills.
• These girls would have improved self-efficacy and financial literacy.
• The daily living skills of children with severe/profound disabilities would be improved.
• There would be transformational changes to harmful practices such as child/early marriage and the dowry system.

Early priorities included improving the learning skills (literacy and numeracy) of girls and children with disabilities, increasing parental engagement in girls’ education, and creating a learning environment at the home and community. The project focussed on creating safe learning environments at school which were accessible for children with disabilities. It also promoted learner-centred classroom practices and gender-responsive and inclusive education pedagogy.

The most challenging period for the project was during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the second and third waves of COVID-19, the project team struggled to retain children’s learning, particularly those with disabilities. Safeguarding was also a major issue, with concerns for the mental health and wellbeing of the children. During this time, there was an extensive broadcasting of child protection awareness raising radio messaging at the district level.

The elections also caused disruption. Schools were closed for one month due to elections at all three levels of government. School-level interventions had to be postponed, affecting learning.

A major reason for drop out in the areas where the ENGAGE project worked is early/child marriage. The project worked to minimise this by engaging parents, promoting ‘Big Sisters’ mentoring and coaching and coordinating with local government and schools. However, the practice is still prevalent in many communities.

A significant success was working with the most hard-to-reach communities where parents did not allow their girls to go outside of the house. The project conducted non-formal education classes in those communities to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills for out-of-schools girls. More than 2,300 girls attended the bridge classes. 1,064 transitioned to the formal education and 888 on livelihood skills. Children with disabilities (hearing and visual impairments) who were out of school and never thought of going school at the start of the project successfully transitioned to the resource classes.

The Big Sisters mentoring and remedial support classes were also highly effective. 86% of girls were highly satisfied with the peer-to-peer teaching and learning methodology. Importantly, during the COVID-19 period of restriction, peer-to-peer teaching and learning helped to gain and retain the learning skills of the girls.

The project was implemented by VSO Nepal (lead organisation) and Handicap International in three districts of Nepal. Implementing partners included DEC Nepal – Banke, DYC- Parsa and PRERANA – Sarlahi who supported on implementing the project activities. The consortium partners coordination was smooth as each organisation’s role was clear from the beginning and the project was designed in a way that supported all the organisations involved to contribute through their expertise.

The project also worked closely with the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (CEHRD), federal government, provincial government, local government, organisations for people with disabilities, other INGOs, EDCU, parents, religious leaders and education offices. VSOs long-standing relationship with the government also helped with implementation, with an honest exchange of needs and support. The project contributed to the government’s mandate, hence, it was appreciated and supported.

As an organisation, we have strengthened our policies and built our capacity in areas such as project management, child protection and safeguarding.

The Fund Manager and FCDO were supportive and encouraged collaboration with other projects to achieve larger goal for Nepal. The FCDO’s regional Senior Education Adviser was a guiding figure and always present with practical solutions that enriched the project’s outcomes and direction. This helped greatly in ensuring that learning was shared and there was no duplication of work. A good example of this is the ongoing work on the Girls Inclusive Education Network (GIEN) and the way all organisations are working together with CEHRD to foster, grow and strengthen the network that will ensure girls right to education and opportunity in Nepal. This can be marked as a legacy from the GEC in Nepal.

Based on project learning, we would advise supporting children from the age of six or seven (ENGAGE and other LNGB project targeted 10 to 19-year-olds). For six to 14-year-olds there would be an education pathway, and for 15 years and above we would provide both education and livelihood pathways. The needs of different age groups vary and those specific needs should be incorporated into the design so that the interventions are targeted and well owned. In addition, a more holistic approach (including health, livelihoods and education) is required to improve the dignified life of girls, especially children with disabilities.

We are proud to have brought so many out-of-school children into the formal education system and supported the lives of the children with disabilities. Field-level staff and the project team at district level helped to deliver Personalised Social Support (PSS) in the communities. The major aim of PSS was to empower the girls towards self-reliance. PSS encompassed identification of the needs of the individual beneficiaries and direct them towards the suitable track of interventions. For instance, based on the PSS, a girl with severe disability was provided assistive devices to support her daily life activities. Similarly, a girl who was not interested in the learning intervention was directed towards the employment/business track.

The ‘Big Sisters’ mentoring programme has had a significant impact. Existing and aspiring Big Sisters in the communities are energised and ready to volunteer so that all the girls in their community have access to education and opportunities. The Big Sisters and National Volunteering approach have been an instrumental factor for demonstrating girls' leadership. Big Sisters are actively engaged in GIEN platform and have received opportunities to influence municipal level education programmes. These networks have also helped these girls to increase their leadership skills in influencing local planning process to make it more gender responsive. Young women have developed and small-scale businesses through income generating activities which have led to the growth of their self-esteem and financial independency. Change is possible, and it is possible through us.