As Nepal sees a steady waning of COVID-19 case numbers and deaths rates, the long-term effects of the pandemic are becoming increasingly apparent. One of the most concerning issues is the negative impact on children’s education – taking steps to help mitigate this will be our overriding priority over the next few months.
Exclusion from education
A recent UNICEF survey revealed that Nepali children have missed at least 70 weeks of school since the coronavirus crisis began. This is one of the highest rates in the world. Being out of the education system for such an extended period of time not only impacts learning and long-term prospects, but also means children are more likely to drop out of the education system entirely. The pandemic-induced, prolonged school closures have therefore undermined long-term efforts to increase school enrolment across the communities in which we work.
The challenges around educational re-integration
Whilst COVID-19 restrictions have now been eased across Nepal and schools have finally re-opened, a major concern is how to get the poorest and most vulnerable children back to school. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be easy. Many of the poorest families have had little or no income, and very little (if any) government support since the onset of the pandemic. This means that many parents have to choose between feeding their families and paying off mounted debt, or buying uniforms and books for their children – a stark choice between survival and education, which sadly means that many parents simply cannot afford to send their children back to school.
There is also a challenge in persuading the children themselves to return to learning. Many fear being well behind their peers who have been fortunate enough to continue learning online; some have fallen victim to high-risk behaviours during a prolonged period without the benefits of the structure and support provided in schools; and others simply have no option but to seek labour opportunities to support their families or even to survive themselves.
The number of girls not being able to return to school is predicted to be even higher, with increased pressure to stay at home and help with domestic chores, such as caring for their siblings, or to find alternative paid labour opportunities. Other girls have got married during the prolonged lockdown and without persuasion and support are unlikely to return to school.
Whilst historically all these barriers to education have existed in Nepal, over the last few years, working in collaboration with parents, communities, schools, local authorities, we have made enormous progress in reducing the number of out of school children in Pokhara and Butwal the two cities where we work. Sadly these gains risk being reversed by the wider impacts of COVID-19 and we must now work hard to mitigate that risk and ensure as many children as possible are able to return to school as soon as possible.
Our next steps
Through our ongoing work during the pandemic, we have already identified many children at risk of not returning to school and recently started distributing uniforms, shoes and bags to enable some of them to re-enrol with their school immediately. For others where the situation is more complex, our network of outreach workers will be working with children and their families to identify and overcome issues preventing their children returning to school.
We will also be lobbying with local schools for them to waive fees for the poorest children and facilitating remedial classes to improve the confidence and attainment levels of children who have been most affected by a long period out of school and are struggling to catch up and/or have lost their belief in the need for education
Our other priority is to get all other planned projects back up to full speed as soon as possible. Whilst the funding of our Life Skills Education initiative was cut by the UK Government in a decision to reduce investment in overseas development, we have been able to secure funding from other sources. Thanks to this new support, we hope to scale up the project, which has received very positive feedback from students, parents and teachers. We will also be re-starting ‘Breaking Boundaries’, our cricket-based sports initiative, which was delivering some very positive results particularly for many of the girls participating in the programme.
Thank you to our supporters
This vital progress wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of our dedicated supporters, and we’d like to extend our gratitude towards all of you for enabling us to support some of the poorest children and families at a time when they most need a helping hand.