Nepal’s high dropout rate for female students had prompted campaigns to keep girls in school. But as the country’s lockdown enters its third month, the challenge now seems to be to keep them at home.
With a rise in reports of child marriages and trafficking of girls, there are fears that Nepal’s efforts to increase female literacy by preventing them from dropping out of school may suffer a setback if the lockdown continues.
A 16-year old of a village in Bardia disappeared from her home on 8 April, two weeks after Nepal’s nationwide lockdown went into effect. She had just completed her Grade 9 exams.
Her parents found out she was having an affair with an Indian classmate who was staying in their neighbourhood with his maternal uncle, had eloped and sneaked over the border. The parents filed a missing person report at the local police, but they ignored the complaint saying she was probably staying with friends.
The parents then contacted the District Police Office and Maiti Nepal office in Gularia, but the police was overstretched enforcing the lockdown, and said there was not much they could do even though the girl called from an Indian mobile. She called to say she was fine and to ask her parents to drop the police investigation.
“She was one of the 600 teenagers who were part of our girl education program for low-income communities with high dropout rates in school and vulnerable to abuse,” says Sakuntala Chaudhari of the literacy advocacy group, Room to Read.
Another Grade 9 student from Gularia that Room To Read was monitoring eloped with a boy from the next village. Her parents decided not to file a case because their community considered elopement a part of its tradition.
It turned out that the extended family was in financial trouble because of the lockdown, the young woman was an extra mouth to feed and when she eloped it was a relief to the family. However, she will now probably not continue with her education.
“During the lockdown there are food shortages, money is running out for many families, and daughters have the least priority,” explains Salina Tamang of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program.
Out of the 4,321 girls the program supports in the districts of Banke, Bardia, Tanahu, and Nuwakot, with distance learning through radio, 500 girls have been out of touch during since the lockdown. These were from families which were already deemed to be at high-risk of dropping out of school. But the good news is that a majority of the girls are in contact and continuing home studies through radio.
Room to Read has identified at least seven cases of child marriage since the lockdown started among the students it supports in Bardia and Banke districts alone. Many of the girls are in areas with poor phone connection, or the girls did not have their own phones to report regularly or talk about potential abusive situations.
A 16-year-old from Kohalpur in Banke stopped responding to calls from Room To Read, and it turned out she had run away with a boy in her class. Her mother tried to get her back, but could not travel because of the lockdown. She has not reported the case to the police because of worries that her daughter might commit suicide.
The Malala Fund estimates that 10 million more secondary school girls worldwide could be out of school once the crisis has passed. The lockdown has affected education worldwide, but in countries like Nepal it threatens to undo years of work to improve female literacy and reduce the dropout rate among girl students.
UNESCO estimates that nearly 90% of the students enrolled in education globally are currently out of school because of COVID-19 closures. This represents 1.54 billion enrolled children and youth, including nearly 743 million girls.
Back in western Nepal, five other girls between the ages of 14-17 in Banke and Bardia districts have run away from home to get married since the lockdown began, mostly with classmates or local boys. These are just cases in two districts after the lockdown, and only came to light because the girls were being closely monitored. There is a fear child marriages and trafficking will increase during the COVID-19 school closure.
One of them, a 17-year-old from Kohalpur, got married after her mother scolded her for having an affair. Another 16-year-old in Bardia decided to run away from home after harsh behaviour by her aunt at home during the lockdown.
Police are reluctant to register trafficking, child marriage and domestic abuse cases during the lockdown, and this has exposed the traditional lack of priority given to the safety women and girls in society, which the present crisis has magnified.