Working together to educate girls in Nepal

08 March 2020 by Ian Attfield, Senior Education Adviser, Girls' Education Challenge

Girls’ Education is a top priority for the UK Government and ambition on this agenda will continue to increase over the foreseeable future.

In September, a UK Parliament’s debate showed wide, crossbench support for girls’ education and this was also to be found true at the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Global Education which was held in January in the margins of the Education World Forum. Demand is enormous and increasingly seen as essential for sustainable development, to escape cycles of inter-generational poverty and mitigate climate changes. But what does it look like in practice?

The Girls’ Education Challenge Sisters for Sisters project is piloting a British Council initiative, English and Digital Girls Education (EDGE) clubs for teenage girls to learn together in a safe space. Visiting a class in Surkhet, Western Nepal I was amazed to find the girls studying together in a pre-dawn class at 6am. Most were attending an additional three hours a day of tuition classes to prepare for exams. The long hours are partly a workaround to the poor quality of teaching within regular school hours and over-crowded classrooms. Listening to the girls describe their favourite inspirational ‘Super-Woman’ and career aspirations was truly heart-warming on a cold January morning at a time when few UK teenagers would ever have left their warm duvets! 

In Nepal, the FCDO implements the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) portfolio with five targeted projects, working in some of the most marginalised communities that have entrenched, harmful gender norms. We seek to raise the profile and importance of 12 years quality education for girls, under-pinned by strong foundational literacy and numeracy outcomes and a sense of self-worth and agency.

Nepal has made strong progress in resolving historic injustices, with a constitution introducing new federal structures that have empowered and decentralised power to over 750 local government leaders to provide services, including quality education. Whilst Nepal has relatively progressive rights-based policy around gender and education, for example banning child marriage and corporal punishment in schools, it struggles to convert policy into practice.

As part of the UK #LeaveNoGirlBehind campaign, the British Embassy, the FCDO and the British Council in Nepal have jointly been engaging with local and provincial education and political leaders to drive home the messages around quality education for girls and the need to address discriminatory gender norms. I joined workshops in Janakpur, after the amazing Women of the World (WOW) festival and Birendranagar to meet local government education staff, discuss gender issues and hear about what they could do. Some highlights and takeaways included:

  • Where are the women? All sixty participants were male! Could employing more women as education leaders and teachers help to provide female role models and change some of the bias and norms? There are policies to recruit more woman into the public sector, but can ways be found to support women to work in remote and difficult communities?
  • Change starts locally. The male leaders were enthusiastically describing initiatives they are taking, including building separate toilets, addressing Period Poverty with locally made sanitary pads and menstrual management advice and introducing complaints boxes to encourage girls to speak out around abuse and violence.
  • Incentivise behaviour change. Both provinces had started savings schemes for baby girls, with government investing in a deposit account that pays out at the age of 20 years if the girl completes school and is still unmarried.

Mr. Dal Rawal, the Karnali Province Minister of Social Development was animated on further actions to take, a campaign is already underway to ban the harmful practice of chhaupadi (forcing girls and women to sleep in cold unprotected huts during menstruation). 

We are currently exploring new ways to amplify these approaches to instigate behaviour change with Nepal’s new local and provincial leaders and spread best practice on girls’ education that GEC and other initiatives have developed. While the federal structure shifts have caused disruptions with staffing levels, it is striking how the benefits of local, context-informed, gender-sensitive planning can shine through and benefit both girls and boys, men and women.