Sisterhood of students
Nepal has made significant progress in raising primary school enrolment, with more than 95% of boys and girls now attending school from Grades 1 through 5. More than half of adolescent girls in rural areas are now in secondary schools; 15 years ago it was less than 30%.
Despite this achievement, poverty, family pressure and gender-unfriendly schools mean that the dropout rate for girl students is still high. As a result, adolescent girls from rural areas get caught in a trans-generational cycle of poverty inherited from their mothers, and are more likely to pass it on to their own children.
In response, VSO Nepal, in partnership with Aasaman Nepal, the British Council, Global Action and Mercy Corps, is helping girls in districts like Parsa -- where female literacy is low -- through a program called Sisters for Sisters’ Education. Older girls are recruited to mentor younger ones, increase their enrolment and prevent dropouts.
The older girls are volunteers from the community, who act like Big Sisters to get Little Sisters into school and guide them through adolescence. Big Sisters provide not only academic support but also encouragement and taboo-busting information on sexual and reproductive health to the younger ones.
More than one-third (36%) of Nepali women over 15 have had no education. This rate increases with age, and more than 91% of women ages 60-64 cannot read or write.
Sisters for Sisters not only gets Big Sisters to mentor Little Sisters through school and act as positive role models, it works with younger girls, their families and schools to ensure they remain within the formal education system.
Although child marriage is illegal, girls living in rural areas get pulled out of school to be married as early as 13. As girls enter adolescence, this and other pressures increase, resulting in a rising dropout rate: 6% drop out of primary school while 8% percent drop out of secondary school.
By leaving school, adolescent girls in rural areas fail to acquire a lifetime capacity for critical thinking and problem solving that can only be learned via secondary education, which goes beyond basic literacy and numeracy skills.
As Little Sisters age, VSO supports them to enrol in higher education, which enhances the girls’ confidence and self-esteem, enabling them to take control of their own sexual and reproductive health and rights, and develop life skills.
So far, peer learning support funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has helped 8,115 girls in Nepal in 50 schools in Dhading, Lamjung, Surkhet and Parsa.
Priyanka Budathoki is with VSO Nepal.
“Never look back”
Sunti Devi is 34 and her daughter is 12, the age she was when she got married. Aged 16 with two babies in her arms and a small bag, Sunti was forced to leave her husband’s home. She does not want her daughter, or other daughters in Nepal, to go through what she did and now mentors female students in her community. Sunti’s story:
“I was in Grade 7 when my parents fixed my marriage with someone in a faraway village. I became a mother at 13, and my in-laws taunted me for giving birth to a daughter. A year later I gave birth to a baby boy and hoped to be accepted back to my husband’s house. I returned only to find that he had married someone else.
I completed Grade 10 and began teaching in a primary school, renting a room to raise my children as a single mother. I started working in Sisters for Sisters’ Education and have never looked back. I am living in the same community where my husband lives with his second wife, but that does not affect me anymore. I am determined not to let my students be forced into marriage at an early age. As an Auntie Champion I train the girls in life skills, mentor them and increase their confidence.”
“I am proud of my sisters”
Apsana Khatun, 19, from Province 2, is a Big Sister community volunteer who mentors four girls (Little Sisters) in a community school. When her relatives wanted her married Apsana’s mother resisted. Her story:
“I am a Muslim. The girls in my community cannot go out on their own, and have to wear veils. My relatives wanted me married off, but my mother allowed me to go to school. Many other girls are not so lucky. After completing Grade 10, I became a Big Sister community volunteer in Sisters for Sisters’ Education in my village.
I am responsible for four Little Sisters, whom I mentor with academic guidance and emotional support. At first their parents were not happy with me. But I persisted, and got two of them who had dropped out back in school. Now, the parents treat me like family. I feel so proud when the girls in my school say they want to be teachers, doctors and nurses. My mother never went to school; I want every mother in Nepal to be educated."