Purna Shrestha is Lead Adviser for Education at VSO International. Purna and his family are Nepalese, and he has been working with VSO and a number of small charities to support the relief efforts in Nepal.
Since the first devastating earthquake struck Nepal on 25th April, nearly 9,000 people are dead, thousands are injured and approximately 2.5 million people are now homeless according to the Government of Nepal’s Disaster Risk Reduction Portal. The Nepalese government and the international community are rushing to provide temporary shelter and safe learning spaces for children before the monsoon season hits from the end of June. I’m concerned for Nepal’s children who may find it hard to cope in such difficult circumstances.
Education at risk
Nepal has improved access to education in recent years. Eight out of ten 3-4-year-olds were accessing early childhood education and development services. The enrolment rate at primary school level (years 1-5) reached 96% (Ministry of Education: 2015). However, the recent earthquakes and over 300 aftershocks have set Nepal’s education system back by years. According to a post-disaster needs assessment carried out by the Ministry of Education, 8,242 schools have been affected, 25,134 classrooms have been completely destroyed and a further 22,097 classrooms have been partially damaged. This has led to the closure of schools and colleges in some areas for over a month, forcing more than two million children out of education.
The total damage to the country’s education system is estimated at US$ 313.2 million. Most of the costs incurred – US$ 280.6 million – relate to infrastructure damage. Demolition and debris removal, construction of temporary learning centres, child-friendly spaces and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, plus school repair costs, total US$ 32.5 million. The cost of recovery and reconstruction in the education sector alone from 2016 to 2020 is estimated at US$ 414.8 million.
Although some schools have reopened, most classes have been taking place in ‘Temporary Learning Centres’ (TLCs). Destruction of family homes and mass displacement have severely impacted the mental health and well-being of Nepal’s children. Even students whose schools haven’t been badly damaged are too frightened to attend, due to the continuing aftershocks.
Girls are most at risk
Although these children need continuous relief in terms of food, clean water and shelter, we mustn’t forget that providing a basic education in the wake of a disaster- even in a Temporary Learning Centre – plays a vital role in a recovery situation. TLCs not only minimise disruption to a girl’s education, but they also protect girls from exploitation and abuse.
A recent media report in the Guardian suggests that tens of thousands of girls made vulnerable by Nepal’s earthquakes are being targeted by human traffickers. Prior to this disaster, the UN estimated that up to 15,000 girls were being trafficked from Nepal every year. I am horrified at this upsurge. The 14 areas worst hit by the earthquakes, like Dhading District, are now most at risk from human trafficking. Only last week, police reportedly intercepted 44 children travelling from Dhading to Kathmandu with adults who were not their legal guardians. Over 50 girls were rescued from the Indian borders since the first earthquake in April. If we don’t act now to create a safe school environment, tens of thousands of vulnerable girls could fall prey to human traffickers.
Young people can inspire others
Despite this disaster, I’m inspired by how young people from all over the world have united in their commitment to help others. Nepalese and international students, youth-led NGOs, and young volunteers have all demonstrated their enthusiasm, compassion and humanity. Young people haven’t just responded to relief efforts in every earthquake-hit village, they’ve demonstrated innovation, courage and determination to restore Nepal. Their positivity has inspired others to get involved. One youth group started ‘Kathmandu Living Labs’, which mobilised more than 2,000 mappers across the globe to contribute to ‘OpenStreetMap’, which helps relief agencies target their relief efforts. Another group has initiated a crowd sourcing campaign ‘HacktheQuake’ - an ideas hub for rebuilding, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Building back better
Imagine if the earthquake – 7.8 on the Richter scale – had occurred during school time? It could have been even more disastrous. As it stands, over 80% of schools in Sindhuplachok have been completely destroyed. According to the Ministry of Education, nearly 250 schools need to be relocated to a safer area and the risk of flooding and landslides is still high. When Nepal rebuilds its schools, we must ensure they are resilient in the face of natural disasters and that they provide a safe environment for teaching. This crisis has created an opportunity to build more inclusive and safer schools for girls – building female toilet blocks will give girls the dignity and privacy they need and peace of mind for their parents. Improving disaster resilience is not only about ‘building back better’ from a structural perspective. It also requires a better curriculum, more textbooks and implemented safety procedures. Stringent disaster risk management training and planning is required at school and community level.
Not only is education vital in helping children overcome the trauma of a natural disaster, it is also critical in restoring a sense of normality and rebuilding hope. Education is a fundamental human right which must be provided and safeguarded by the State in order to give every child the best possible chance to realise their potential; despite the vast challenges they face, the people of Nepal will rebuild the education system and the country, but they still need your support to do this.