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Political Instability is Hampering Girls' Opportunities in Nepal

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A week is a long time in Nepalese politics. During the first five days of my VSO parliamentarian volunteering placement this summer, the prime minister resigned, triggering yet another round of negotiations between the main political parties; a general strike by transport workers restricted travel along main roads and several power cuts slowed things down. It is one of the world's poorest countries and despite a relatively small population of 30 million people, there are over 100 ethnic groups, nearly as many languages and 60 castes.

Sclerosis has dominated Nepalese politics since the abolition of the monarchy four years ago after the Maoist Liberation Army fought for a people's revolution for a decade. The new Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai recently told the BBC he has until November to produce a draft constitution and negotiate peace between the major political parties or he will have to resign.

Through my work helping VSO's partner organisation, the National Campaign for Education Nepal (NCEN), I saw the challenges for influencing government policy due to political instability and a culture of gender inequality. On paper, recent progress has been made in enrolling children in primary education in Nepal. The World Bank estimates that 74% of children were enrolled in primary education in 2005, whereas the enrollment rate stood at over 90% in 2009. However, the reality behind the figures tells a different story.

I visited the mothers' committee of a primary school in the Rupandehi district of Nepal's flatlands and spoke to them about the pressures facing girls in particular. With work to be done in the fields or in the home, many families do not see their daughters' education as a priority. I also met two 13-year-old married school girls who are unlikely to go on to secondary school. Discrimination within the caste system is still rife, so there are even less opportunities for girls from low castes such as Dalits or indigenous families. Other social norms also block progress. In the Himalayan hills, the practice of chaupadi still exists, where girls are sent to the cowshed during their periods.

Girls also face practical barriers to their education. According to UNICEF, only a third of schools in Nepal have separate toilets. Ministers I met with did not recognise UNICEF's data but they acknowledged there is a shortfall and are aiming to provide all schools with separate toilets by 2015.

At a local level, capacity to implement change and drive up standards is poor. Teacher management is weak. Teacher recruitment is often political. A previous education minister was sacked for taking backhanders for appointing temporary teachers. In the UK, school governors are the most effective volunteer force in the country, however Nepal's school committees are reputed to use their positions for attaining power locally.

As the largest bilateral donor, the British Government is doing some excellent work to improve the life chances of the most deprived people in Nepal. However, parliamentarians and Ministers admit that education does not get enough attention due to ongoing political problems.
Nepal is crying out for political stability.

Only then will a Nepalese Government capable of implementing change and driving improvements emerge. The question is whether the current generation of politicians has the courage and foresight to put aside their differences and finally reach an agreement on the constitution and a peace settlement. Only then will poor, marginalised, illiterate girls and women really have access to the education and opportunities they deserve.

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