To get to the Bagwana school in the Parsa district of Nepal, we fly 20 minutes in a tiny plane from Kathmandu to the south of the country. After that, it is another a one-hour drive along a rough road to reach the village where the school is. It is not the easiest of places to get to. But that is exactly the point.
We are here to visit children and adolescent girls involved in the Let Us Learn programme, a UNICEF education initiative targeting the most marginalized children, focusing specifically on the hardest to reach. These boys and girls live in remote areas and face multiple barriers to receiving an education.
As we arrive, villagers, children, school headmasters and district education officials welcome us, painting our foreheads with tika – a reddish orange powder. Music and singing follow us down the path as children place vibrant orange marigold garlands around our necks. By the time we enter the main school yard for the official welcome and introductions, our necks are overflowing with garlands. We then proceed to walk around the school yard to meet students involved in Let Us Learn after-school programmes.
In Nepal, the high school dropout rate for adolescent girls is much higher than for boys. The Let Us Learn after-school programmes aim to change this. The programmes include clubs specifically for adolescent girls, including the menstrual hygiene and sanitation clubs, which teach menstrual hygiene management, including how to make reusable cloth sanitary pads. There are also peer homework clubs, which fill gaps in learning and bolster confidence.
The students of the peer homework club have prepared a display. They have decorated two trees: a dead tree covered with handwritten notes about barriers to education including child marriage and work; and a healthy, green tree with notes that take on a more inspiring tone such as overcoming shyness and encouraging peers to regularly attend school. One card reads “sit at the front bench,” encouraging girls to confidently take their seat at the front of the class – which wouldn’t be out of place in any business motivation manual.
We meet with the Young Champions, an organized group of young people who advocate and promote education in the community. One young man proudly tells us that he is not going to marry a woman for her looks, but for what she does for the community. The Young Champions then put on an energetic theatre presentation acting out the different barriers to education and showcasing the Young Champion’s role in convincing families that sending their girls to school is important.
The Let Us Learn sports clubs, which have created girls soccer teams in more than 10 schools, are challenging gender norms and gaining the respect of the community. One soccer player tells us she wants to grow up to be a police officer, traditionally a male dominated profession. These girls, who only a year ago played in their school uniforms, now have soccer jerseys. The camaraderie and self-assurance is palpable. I get the sense that these girls are not going to pull any punches, and we see it on the field.
As the afternoon sets in, the excited crowd takes their seats around the school yard to watch the soccer game between the red and black and the blue and white teams. There are two 15-minute halves. As the red and black team scores, the crowd around me leaps to their feet cheering. The blue and white team gets control of the ball back with some fancy footwork and, after a few more minutes, the game is tied.
Then it is our turn. Donors Susan and Stefan Findel and UNICEF staff members join the teams for some light-hearted soccer. Or so we think. It becomes clear pretty quickly that these girls mean business. After a few near shots on the goal, some impressive dribbling skills, and a UNICEF staff collision, the game is over and the crowd runs onto the field cheering and jumping and congratulating the girls.
The sun is going down and it’s time to drive back for the night. The UNICEF team feels impressed, inspired and maybe even a little worn out by the girls we have met today.
Pi James is a Communications Specialist based in UNICEF Headquarters in New York.
In November 2014 Pi travelled to Nepal with a group of UNICEF colleagues and Stefan and Susan Findel, who are the largest individual donors in UNICEF’s history and responsible for supporting the ambitious and innovative Let Us Learn education programme. The programme runs in five countries including Nepal. The group also included staff from the UNICEF German National Committee, the US Fund for UNICEF and colleagues from UNICEF offices in Afghanistan, Madagascar and Bangladesh who were keen to see how Let Us Learn operates in Nepal.