Education is a basic human right and often a way out of poverty. Thus, governmental policies and other agencies emphasize access to free or low-cost education. While providing free education is a worthy goal, access alone is not sufficient. What happens when students are too poor to take advantage of it? Can anyone be really too poor to afford “free” education? If such a scenario exists, what does it mean to provide holistic educations for a community? To change the conversation from seemingly distant “future value of education” to immediate “what I will get today,” or more importantly, “why should I go to school today?” We in the Rukmini Foundation realized that we need to think differently and come up with innovative solutions. Through this post, we will summarize our key efforts that shed lights on these vexing questions, which are common to all underdeveloped nations in the world.

A typical life for girls and women in remote villages like Rakahs Khola

To understand the underlying problem of access to education and school attendance, senior members from foundation visited Kalidevi School in Rakash Khola, a small village just a few hours from Kathmandu. While higher rates of poverty are not uncommon in remote villages; it was very distressing to find a place so close to Kathmandu that had children suffering from severe malnutrition. The dire situation is forcing the young boys and girls either to leave the village for work or to get married at a very early age hoping to escape poverty and hardships.

Mr. Rabindra Tamang’s wife had to leave her village to go find work in the Maldives to support their family.

In this, most students enrolled are of the Tamang ethnicity (approximately 80%), 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 that group, 26.7% households have a child helping at home. 13% of children do not attend school due to expenses associated with education. Though Kalidevi School has classes up to grade eight, only 74 students were attending school regularly at the start of our partnership. The low enrollment also raises the possibility of Kalidevi being shut down, further exacerbating the problem.

The background information of Rakash Khola and Kalidevi School makes it clear that while education is a 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.

The foundation team walked along with some of the kids back to their village from school and experienced the grueling journey for themselves.

After getting a better understanding of the struggles faced by the children in this area and by working closely with the school leaders, Rukmini Foundation started by first organizing a health checkup for all the students in October 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. We decided the first step towards a beneficial education was to start with a Nutrition Program that would be feasible in their community. We put forward a mid-day meal plan for all the children attending Kalidevi School. This program offers all school children well-balanced and nourishing hot meals every day. This program worked towards helping the students be physically well and able to pay better attention to their schoolwork.

The meal program is making noticeable, positive differences already.

Within two months of implementation, there was a distinct change observed. More children were registering for school and attending their classes regularly. The teachers of Kalidevi enthusiastically support and 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. At the cost of 20 Nepali Rupees per child a day, we have been providing a hot, well-balanced and nutritional meal for every student attending the school. The program also includes education about the importance of proper nutrition and basic health skills like hygiene. The meal program will run 220 school days of the year.

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 dedicated to the well-being of the students along with their education, and we have enjoyed our partnership. The teachers get involved in the preparation of the meals as well as leading classes, and truly believe in empowering the kids through education.

Teachers help in preparing and serving the meal.

We are working towards establishing a program which would not only make the Meal 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 could also provide employment opportunity for some people, especially women, in the community.

We know that simply by providing a healthy meal in school, more girls will have access to education. We can expand on services from there.

We also plan to introduce Quality Education and Mentoring programs to Kalidevi School eventually. These programs will not only provide the students with a better educational opportunity but also help them build confidence themselves and their dreams. We hope to provide the students with a chance for a healthy mind and body, so that they can thrive along with rest of the Kathmandu Valley.

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.

About Arun Aryal

An assistant professor of Management Information Systems at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA), Arun teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Information Systems and Analytics. Prior to CSULA, he worked as a Teaching Fellow for Georgia State University (GSU) where he was part of the team that designed GSU’s enterprise systems concentrations within the computer information systems major. He is the recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award (2014 & 2015) and his research focuses on the intersection of emerging technologies, analytics, and enterprise systems. He earned a Ph.D. in Computer Information Systems from Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University and has worked in the IT industry for about seven years prior to entering the academic world. For the foundation, Arun provides guidance on how to make the best use of technology to solve problems in developing countries, and also lends his teaching philosophies and ideals as we look to innovate around education for students in rural areas of Nepal.
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