The scale of catastrophe caused by the recent earthquakes in Nepal is staggering, as are many of the challenges of responding to the disaster. They have been well-reported, along with the potential for opportunities that will come as the relief effort moves from crisis to recovery. So far, however, very little has been said about what happens next for the 7.5m children who were attending school in Nepal before the quake hit.
Reopening schools may instinctively feel low down on a priority list that begins with clean water, sanitation and shelter, but research shows that it is vital in providing a sense of normality, structure and routine after disasters, restoring hope and supporting psychological healing. It is also recognised that the longer children remain out of the classroom, the less likely they are ever to return.
Prior to the earthquake there were roughly 35,000 schools across Nepal. According to UNICEF, almost 24,000 classrooms were damaged or destroyed on the April 25 earthquake, with no update yet for subsequent deterioration resulting from the second big quake. In the worst-affected districts, 90% of schools have been desolated. Many schools that do remain standing are now being used to provide emergency shelter.
One million children with no school
UNICEF suggests that up to a million children who were enrolled in school before the quake have no school to return to. Numbers so far are necessarily focused on buildings: with so many families displaced, the school I work with in Kathmandu alone has yet to account for how many children are confirmed lost.
Crucially though, even temporary schools in the simplest of shelters can offer opportunities to educate children in the new life skills they will need to deal with the rapidly changing world around them. They can also provide protection for some of the marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities, girls and children with disabilities who are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in times of social chaos. This is a significant risk in Nepal, where the recent launch of Childreach’s Taught Not Trafficked campaign has highlighted that around 20,000 children are trafficked out of the country each year.
Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF’s representative in Nepal, emphasised the urgency for action:
There is a desperate need to set up alternative learning spaces, assess and repair buildings, and mount a public awareness campaign encouraging families to send their children back to school and preschool.
Good progress on MDGs
The decade-long civil war, ending in 2006, had complex implications for education outcomes. Maoist insurgents were advocates for girls attending school, so female attainment generally went up, but conflict injuries, school demolitions, child soldier recruitment and abductions all had a counter impact.
In subsequent years as a post-conflict nation, Nepal has been recognised for making excellent progress in primary education against its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target, with a tracked leap from 64% net enrolment in 1990 to 95.3% in 2013, the most recent figure.
Nepal has actively engaged with the consultation for setting the post-2015 global education objectives, and minister for education Chitralekha Yadav attended the UNESCO World Education Forum in Korea. Committing to an education agenda that is focused on quality as well as quantity remains a vital next step for her nation. Despite good progress against the MDG there is significant variance across social and ethnic groups, quality and equity in the classroom are questionable, high dropout rates have been flagged as a critical cause for concern and secondary enrolment stands at just 60%.
The last MDG progress report for Nepal found that the “quality of educational infrastructure and learning environments is highly correlated with the political and economic capacities and … with access to roads and physical distance from district headquarters.” All of which implies that the advantages brought about by the MDG push in the last 15 years are fragile and, in current circumstances, extremely vulnerable.
It is vital for Nepal’s future that the strength and urgency of the international drive to get children back into classrooms of any description must also follow through to continue supporting positive, sustainable change in the quality and equity of education delivery and outcomes across the nation.
If aid agencies and development partners focus funds and resources now on numbers alone, then the progress gained against the education MDG will be lost, potentially setting the education system back by 15 years. That would indeed be a whole new disaster for the children of Nepal.