19/06/2015 09:46 BST | Updated 17/06/2016 06:59 BST

Nepal's Children Pay the Highest Price - Earthquakes Threaten Education Progress

Since the first devastating earthquake struck Nepal seven weeks ago, nearly nine thousand people are dead, thousands are injured and approximately 2.5 million people are now homeless. 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. From everything I am hearing via my family, VSO colleagues, partner organisations and our volunteers on the ground, I'm concerned for Nepal's children who may find it hard to cope in such difficult circumstances.

Education at Risk

Nepal's earthquakes including the more than three hundred aftershocks have set Nepal's Education System back by several years. Nepal has improved access to education in recent years - 8 out of 10 three to four year olds now have access to 'Early Childhood Education and Development' services and the gross enrolment ratio has reached 96% at primary school level (year 1- 5). According to a Ministry of Education post-disaster needs assessment, 8,242 schools have been affected, 25,134 classrooms have been completely destroyed and a further 22,097 classrooms have been partially damaged. Schools and colleges have been closed for a month in some areas, forcing more than 2 million children out of education.

Eye-watering costs

The Ministry estimates the total damage to the country's education system at US$ 313.2 (£ 204.7) million, mainly to infrastructure. Demolition and debris removal, construction of temporary learning centres, child-friendly spaces, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities, plus school repair costs total US$ 32.5 (£21.24)million. Recovery and reconstruction needs in education alone from 2016 to 2020 are estimated at US$ 414.8 (£270.79) million.

Vulnerable children

Although some schools re-opened last week, most classes have taken 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. One VSO volunteer working in education Anne Marcer from Devon, has spoken about the challenges she sees after assessing damage in remote areas. Even students whose schools haven't been badly damaged are too frightened to attend, due to the continuous aftershocks, some of which she experienced firsthand with the communities she met. Also she sees things like unsafe toilets for the girls to use becoming a big problem as girls will not be prepared to use the boys toilet, so many will not attend school until this is repaired or rebuilt.

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 are important too as they minimise disruption to girls' education and protect girls from exploitation and abuse.

Girls at risk

A recent media report in the Guardian suggests that thousands of girls made vulnerable by Nepal's earthquakes are being targeted by human traffickers. I am horrified by this, as nearly 15,000 persons (mostly women and children) in Nepal are trafficked every year. Fourteen 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, thousands of girls will be victims of human trafficking.

Rebuilding Better- an opportunity

Imagine if the 7.8 earthquake had occurred during school time? It could have been even more disastrous. As it stands, over 80% of schools in Sindhuplachok District 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 schools, we must ensure they are resilient and provide a safe environment for teaching. This crisis has created an opportunity to build 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 from a structural perspective, it also requires a better curriculum, more textbooks and implemented safety procedures.

We must continue to fundraise globally and be watchful over all the rebuilding efforts so that our children are safe and their future is as bright as it once was.