Field Report by: Satish Aryal
Background on Rakash Khola and Kalidevi School
Rakash Khola is a small village just a few hours from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Despite being located geographically close to the capital, Rakash Khola itself is untouched by development and comforts of the modern world. When we set out to reach more remote villages last year, this was one of the communities that our team members learned more about, and what we found, shocked us. While it was not uncommon to see village with higher rates of poverty; it was very distressing to find a village so close to Kathmandu that had children suffering from severe malnutrition, and that the young boys and girls were leaving village either for work or to get married at a very early age just to escape the village’s poverty and hardships.
Getting to Rakash Khola is a difficult hike for our team members
Before we could even consider the ways to improve life standards through education, we realized that the enrollment rates were so low that the school was at the risk of being shut down. Education is part of human right and while Nepal has a public education system that provides “free” education, walking for 1-2 hours each way to school on an empty stomach makes it virtually impossible for the children to learn. Further, parents are not motivated to send the children to school when the children could be working for their meal. Such was the case for students from Rakash Khola who attend the government run Kalidevi Basic School when we visited in 2017.
This is the typical life for a girl or woman in Rakash Khola where poverty and child marriage rates are high while school enrollment and graduation rates are very low.
A majority of the students enrolled in this school are of the Tamang ethnicity (approximately 80%), a community known to be one of the most socially and economically disadvantaged in Nepal. From a 2016 report titled, “Socioeconomic Status of Indigenous People in Nepal Report,” 29% of Tamang community never attends the school, and among 29% of Tamang community, 26.7% households have a child helping at home. 13% of children do not attend school due to expenses associated with education. Though this school has classes up to grade eight, there were only 74 students attending the entire school at the start of our partnership.
Only 74 students were in attendance when we first visited Kalidevi School
Why aren’t there more kids in school?
There are many factors to the low enrollment and attendance, but economic hardship is at the center. Parents in this community often hold their children back from school to work in farms or other labor. This is especially true for daughters as they consider it a waste of money and labor to send daughters to school when they are simply expected to keep home. Speaking of work, many young boys and girls have been leaving the village, sometimes even the country, in search for work. This results in the community being left with the very old and the very young, which hinders the growth and sustainability of the community. Many of the youth seeking work away from their villages are also targets for traffickers, which is yet another danger facing our youth, especially young girls.
Foundation Team meeting great grandmother of some of the students.
Another key factor for low enrollment / attendance is that many daughters are often married off very young to save on expenses, like education. A more recent phenomena, but one just as troubling, is that young girls often feel that the only way to overcome their obstacle and gain a sense of control over their life is to get married. A sharp rise in these “love marriages” have been seen in villages like Rakash Khola. Despite these marriages being initiated by the girls instead of the parents, the effects and long-term damage to them is essentially the same, and in some cases worse.To successfully tackle the many issues hindering girls education in remote villages like Rakash Khola, we need to reach out to both the parents and their daughters. Sadly, the challenges don’t end there for this community because even when a parent wants to keep their daughters in school, the literal remoteness of the village in relation to the schools means that children often have to walk an hour or two to get to school.
When we heard about how long it took for some children to get to their classes, three members of Rukmini Foundation decided to walk in their shoes back home to their village. They started off with 10 of these students and after two hours of hiking up a steep hill and through a forest, they finally arrived at a small, tin roofed home. The Foundation team was exhausted and hungry even though they had enjoyed a lunch earlier in the day, something many of these kids never get.
Foundation Advisor, Ms. Laxmi Aryal (left) speaking with a teacher at Kalidevi Schoo, Ms. Shrijana Bhujel
This field trip brought back memories of 6 decades ago for Ms. Laxmi Aryal, one of the inspirations behind the foundation and a current advisor. At that time, when she was the first girl from her village to go to school, there was simply no other way of getting to school besides walking because there weren’t roads or any cars or buses that traveled those villages. However, 55 years on, the situation for some of these villages has not improved. While there are roads now, and more cars and buses than there is room on the roads, students from public schools do not have access to transportation. While some private schools have buses that would make this journey less difficult, we cannot simply move students from public schools to private. The main reasons being that the costs would not be affordable for most families, the quality of education at a private school is not guaranteed to be better and the more students who forego public schools for private and the greater the risk that these important schools in these villages may be shut down if children left them to attend private schools.
When the Foundation Team made this difficult journey from school to the furthest house of the students, they finally made it to the house of Mr. Tamang, who shared with us his story and his hope for this children.
Rabindra Tamang – A Case Study in hardship, sacrifice and resilience in Rakash Khola
Mr. Rabindra Dimdung Tamang who is 25 years old lives in this home with his three daughters, Simran (5), Sachetana (7) and Rejina (9). His wife is currently working in the Maldives as a housemaid to earn the family money. Mr. Tamang was kind enough to share his story with us.
Our house was badly damaged during the earthquake in 2015 and without any job opportunity here in Nepal, I left for the Maldives to find work and earn money. I left behind a young family to do that, and now my wife has left home for the Maldives to do the same. I am doing my best to take care of our daughters. I clean their clothes, prepare meals for them and get them ready for school. I walk half of the way to school and meet them on the way back. In my visit to a foreign country, I realized that education can lead to a better life for my family. Even though it is too late for me and wife, I want my daughters to have that chance. My wife and I have decided that at least one of us, no matter who it is, should stay at home to take care of them and support them as they get an education. It is the only way they may live a better life.
Mr. Tamang and his wife’s dedication to their daughters is an inspiration for us, and supporting families like theirs motivates us. Although their family story was one of struggle and sacrifice, we left the meeting feeling inspired. Mr. Tamang’s story is not unique to Rakash Khola. Despite living within the Kathmandu region, this community (and others) struggle to provide even the basic human needs.
What is the foundation doing about such issues?
After our exposure to these more remote villages and getting a better understanding of the struggles faced by the children, Rukmini foundation started by first organizing a health checkup for all the students in October of 2017. The results showed 80% of the students were undernourished and 3% of the students were severely malnourished and highlighted the urgency of counteractive action to support these children. To combat the horrifying results of the health checkup, Rukmini foundation decided the first step towards a beneficial education was to start with a Nutrient Program for the student that would be feasible in their community. The foundation put forward a mid-day meal plan for all the children attending Kalidevi School. This program offers all the children who attend this school with a well balanced and nourishing hot meals every day. This worked towards helping the students be physically well and able to pay better attention to their school work.
The pilot meal program is helping girls like this at Kalidevi School by providing at least 1 meal a day that is filling, hygenic and nutritious
Within two months of program implementation, there was a distinct pattern of change observed in the students. More children are registering to the school and attending their classes more regularly. The teachers of Kalidevi School enthusiastically support and help make this program a greater success. With more children enrolling, the teachers no longer fear the government closing down this one school in struggling community. The jobs at the school are more secure and more children every month are getting education with a side of healthy meal. At the cost of 20 Nepali Rupees per child a day, the Rukmini Foundation has been providing a hot, well balanced and nutritional meal for every student attending the school. The program will run 220 days of the year when the school is open.
These results would not have been possible without the wonderful support of the Kalidevi School staff, especially School Headmaster, Mr. Rajan Adhikari. All of the teachers here are so dedicated to the well-being of the students along with their education, and we have enjoyed our partnership. The teachers get involved in the preparaation of the meals as well as leading classes, and truly believe in empowering these kids through education.
The lack of food at home meant the children had to instead go to work to earn their daily meal. Through the meal program, the student enrollment has increased because the parents do not have to worry about earning the children’s meal while they are in school. Feeding their stomach is a way to feed their dreams and better futures. Now that the students are eating well, they are able to focus on their studies too.
The students had become more enthusiastic about their education. They not only look healthier, but they are happier and actively participating in school activities. Further, the enrollment of students has also increased from 74 to 110 and the students are attending their classes more regularly.
We have planned another day of Health checkup for the students of Kalidevi School to monitor the progress of their health and to be able to make future changes as needed based on the results. Rukmini foundation hopes to keep succeeding in not only providing food for the students, but also a means to healthier lifestyle through their school.
The program also includes education about the importance of proper nutrition and basic health skills like hygiene.
The Rukmini foundation is working towards establishing a program which would not only make the Nutrient Program self sufficient but also enable it to run all year round, even when the school is off. The program currently supports local farmers and stores, and is hoping to expand it into a catering service that will be able to conduct business outside of the school to raise regular funds for the meal program. This will also provide employment opportunity for some people in the community and further help it in it’s struggle to survive.
The Rukmini Foundation also plans to eventually introduce Quality Education and Mentoring Program to Kalidevi School. These programs will not only provide the students with better education opportunity, but also help them build confidence themselves and their dreams. Our hope is to provide the students of this school with a opportunity for a healthy mind and body, so that they can thrive along with rest of the Kathmandu Valley.
How you can be a part of the solution
As mentioned earlier, we have been able to have a huge, positive impact at just 20 Nepali Rupees per day. We would like to be able to conduct this program throughout the year, even when the children are out of school. We are looking at ways to bring this idea to all of our partner schools as a way to build “A Canteen in Each School.” To support this program, we are seeking support from individual donors as well as institutional partners, especially those with experience in working to combat hunger. We are also lobbying local government in Nepal to receive some support as well as seeking sponsorship from local businesses.
As the late, great Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” However, if we cannot meet the basic needs like food, we cannot expect these kids or their parents to pursue an education. Although empowerment through education seems close, it is still very far away indeed if we can’t take care of the basics.