Last week, the 8th of September commemorated the International Literacy Day. This day was proclaimed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1966 and since then every year, it has been observed across the globe for the purpose of reminding the international community of the importance of literacy for all and the need for increased effort towards more literate society. Literacy amongst all individuals is one major issue of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the access to education is the key component of the UN Sustainable Development Goal no.4.
Countries have pledged for the quality education of their youths without them having to face any discrimination with regard to gender, caste, race, religion and economic background. Various efforts have been made so that all individual irrespective of their differences receive equal access to quality education. With that, the disparity amongst people to have equal access to education has lessened to some extent over the years. According to a report by the World Economic Forum in 2020, educational attainment gaps has narrowed down across the world with 35 countries achieving 100 percent parity and 120 countries reducing their educational gap by at least 95 percent. But having said that, gender inequality still remains a major hindrance in countries,especially the under-developed ones like Nepal which has widened the education gap between different groups of population, especially girls and boys. This has been a huge setback to Nepal for its quest to achieve gender equality and reduce the gap in education amongst the women and men at present as well as in the future.
Right to education is a fundamental human right of every individual. Yet, women are under-represented at different levels of education starting from primary level to the university level in Nepal. Education is imperative in empowering women so that they can stand independently for themselves as well as contribute towards the upliftment of the community as a whole. Empowerment of women is crucial for the socio-economic development of the country and the major prerequisite for the women's empowerment is providing them opportunity to education. This helps women's potential to be fully tapped which can have a profound implication towards the social and economic development of the community and the country at large. According to a report by the World Bank, increasing the enrolment of girls in the secondary school by 1 percent boots the annual per capita growth of the country by 0.3 percent. Whereas, per capita income growth associated with increasing the same percentage in boy's secondary enrolment is comparatively very low.
The new Constitution of Nepal which came into effect on 2015 has made the right to education an inherent right for all the citizens of the country. Despite of this, the gender gap in education is still rampant across the nation. Discrimination between girls and boys with regard to education can be observed in Nepalese households even today, especially in the underprivileged and rural parts of the country. Even if adolescent girls are given opportunity to attend school, due to several socio-cultural, economic and geographical factors very few of them transition from primary to secondary level and many are compelled to drop out of school. This situation doesn't exist in the case of their male counterparts. Patriarchal thought-processes also adds to this disparity regarding the curtailing of the educational rights of women.
In the under-privileged and uneducated households, due to the lack of knowledge and awareness amongst the parents, investing in a girl child's education is considered to be a waste of resources. Families rather believe in training the girls from an early age for household chores so that they are equipped with skills for their married life. Poor households choose to invest in educating the boys instead of girls as they do not see any economic return coming from girl's education. Even if parents allow girl child to go to school, due to several household responsibilities, their attendance in school is really low and study time at home is also very limited which compels them to either repeat their grades or drop out of school leaving no other options available.
Prevalence of early marriage is another major factor that leads to the adolescent girls being pulled out of school and being pushed towards reproductive roles. As per a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Nepal is one of the hot-spots for child marriage in South Asia alongside countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India. Child marriage is so pervasive in rural parts of Nepal and it is one of the major barriers to retain girl children in school. Furthermore, the cost of schooling is beyond reachable to somehouseholds which are below poverty line which compels the parents to keep their daughters at home even if in some cases the parents wish to educate their girl child the same way as their boy child.
Geographical proximity in the rural areas of the country is another factor which doesn't allow parents to feel safe to send their daughters to school. Parents drop their girls out of school once they reach puberty in the fear that girls might be sexually exploited on the way to school or while returning back. Similarly, presence of very few female teachers in the school makes the families in the traditional society believe that school is an unsafe place for girls, as various news reports of girls being exploited in the hands of their male teachers come time and again in the media. These factors act as obstacle for girls to go to school and get education which results in permanent loss of human capital in the long run for the country.
Moreover, the unprecedented health pandemic COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation further. It has put a setback to efforts made over the years for improving the state of gender equality in education in Nepal. Due to the school closures as the result of the lockdown, children have not been able to attend their school. Because of which the burden of the household chores and responsibilities for the girl child has increased resulting them having less time to study at home.
At the privileged households too, due to the nature of the virus, care givers are given leave and the household works done by them are being replaced by daughters in the house. In Nepalese families, usually the household chores are considered to be women's job because of which the daughters are engaged in such tasks since their early age. Situation remains same in the lockdown period as well because of which the girls are getting less time for academics compared to boys in the house.
Furthermore, many children from the weak economic background are not being able to attend their online classes due to their inability to afford the technological resources needed to attend those classes. This situation has pushed many parents to drop their children out of school. There has also been a news report of a girl child committing suicide for not being able to afford a computer for online class.
On top that, there is a high possibility that those parents who put less value on girl's education and those who cannot afford for their child's future education may choose to keep their daughters at home even after the COVID situation gets better and schools reopen, resulting in the permanent drop out of their girl child from school. As per a report by the World Bank, since March 2020, 111 million girls in the least developed countries have been already beenpushed out of school. This number is expected to outgrow further in the days to come. Overall, the effects of COVID-19 on education and academics seems to be disproportionate, as the girl children are affected more than the boy children.
Education is indispensable for the empowerment of women, especially in today's day and time. It is the main source to lift up the socio-economic status of women and their empowerment. Therefore, it is vital that policy makers assist in making education accessible to all, irrespective of their gender and address the gaps present in the field of education for women and girls. Apart from that, it is extremely pivotal to acknowledge the need to change the social and cultural attitude of the society and inculcate the values on people on the importance of the girl's education.
Some initiatives have been taken by the government for the girl's education like declaring the secondary school tuition free. But due to limited funding and incapacitated mechanism, this is not being implemented properly and certain fees are still being collected in public schools. Hence, strong funding needs to be allocated by the government and effective monitoring system needs to be in place to check if tuition fees are completely waved in schools or not. Furthermore, government should start the initiative to provide full scholarships up to 10th grade specifically targeting the girls. Mentorship programmes as well as trainings and skills development programmes need to be provided to school going girls which will help unleash the power within them and which can help them make informed life decisions in future.
Currently, in the COVID-19 scenario, many girls have not been able to participate in online learning due to inaccessibility and lack of ownership to resources like computer and internet. Government should therefore work towards financial packages and incentives to provide laptop, internet and other learning resources to the girls who are incapable of affording the distance learning tools which are required for their study. Government should work to ensure that education system in Nepal is gender-equitable in nature and any obstaclethat works against achieving that goal needs to be corrected so that the journey to gender equality in Nepal is accomplished on lesser time.
The author holds a Master of Science degree in Gender and Development Studies from the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand.