Illiterate Women Push for Girls Education in Nepal

More than half of women in Nepal are illiterate. Marital customs, gender roles and poverty are among the reasons that many parents educate sons over daughters.

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Illiterate Women Push for Girls Education in Nepal

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KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Laxmi Shrestha, 35, says that, unlike other children, she and her sister, Sita, always wanted to go to school when they were younger. But they never had the chance.

Every day, their brothers went to the school, a 20-minute walk from their house. And every day, she and her sister stayed home to help their mother with the chores, collecting fodder for the cattle and wood for fuel.

“My mother tried to send me to school, but my father didn’t listen to her at all,” Shrestha says.

Instead, she says that her father emphasized that they learn how to perform household chores so they could run their homes when they got older.

Shrestha, from Orang, a village in Dolakha district, says she learned how to do household chores at an early age – but never how to read or write. She got married at 18 to her husband, Roshan Bindukar, who lived in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, about 100 kilometers east of her village.

Moving out of her family’s home, she says that her father told her to never forget them and to stay in touch. Once in her husband’s home in Kathmandu, Shrestha started missing her family. But she couldn’t contact them because letters were the only means of communication at the time, and she didn’t know how to write.

When she asked her sister-in-law to help her, she humiliated Shrestha for being illiterate. She cries at the memory, wiping her tears with the fringe of her shawl.

“I cried the whole night,” she says. “I was very angry with my parents for not sending me to school.”

Illiterate women in Nepal say they struggle with basic daily tasks ranging from communication to directions. Representatives from nongovernmental organizations promoting education in Nepal cite marital customs, patriarchal gender roles and poverty for the lower prioritization of educating daughters than sons. Schools principals add illiteracy of parents and poor sanitation facilities to the reasons why girls don’t attend or stay in school. The government and nongovernmental organizations promote formal education for girls, and learning centers offer informal education for women.

About 57 percent of Nepali women above age 15 were illiterate as of 2009, according to a Central Bureau of Statistics report. Illiteracy among men in the same age bracket was about half at 29 percent.

Geeta Majhi, 26, of Lalbandi village in Sarlahi district is illiterate. Born and raised in the flatlands of the eastern plains, Majhi grew up with one older brother and four younger sisters.

Her brother used to go to the nearby school. Her parents also sent her to the school with her brother when she was 5 but withdrew her after a year.

Majhi says her parents told her that education made girls indulgent and permissive and was unnecessary for daughters, who should be married off to their husbands’ homes. Instead of attending school, they asked Majhi to look after the household chores and her little sisters.

Majhi says she could never voice her desire to study. Instead, she cried about her misfortune for being born female.

Now, Majhi and her husband work as low-wage construction workers in Kathmandu. She also works part time doing laundry in nearby houses.

The inability to read and write poses many practical difficulties in the lives of women like Majhi: in identifying the denominations of paper money, in expressing their thoughts and problems in writing, in using the telephone, in voting during elections, in reading signs and in helping their children with their schoolwork, according to 10 women at the Community Study Centre, which offers informal education to children and women. The women say their illiteracy also enables others to cheat them out of their property rights.

Shanta Paudel, chairwoman of the Community Study Centre, blames Nepal’s patriarchal mindset for the lower literacy rate of women in Nepal. She says that instead of educating daughters and making them self-reliant, parents them marry off.

Different communities have different reasons for not educating their daughters, says Nabin Subedi, a program manager at ActionAid, one of the leading international nongovernmental organizations working for social change and educational rights in Nepal.

Subedi cites marriage beliefs as the main reason that girls in the Terai are not in school.

“If a daughter is educated, the parents need to find an educated groom, which means they need to pay excessive dowry during the marriage,” Subedi says. “Therefore, the parents pull out their girls from the school.”

Women have a higher illiteracy rate than men because their families don’t send them to school as frequently or for as long as they do with their sons, says Satya Narayan Shah, executive director of Social Development Path, a nongovernmental agency promoting socio-economic development in 10 districts of Nepal. He attributes this decision to poverty and the cultural belief that women are limited to household work, which doesn’t require education. Especially in rural areas, agriculture is the main occupation for the majority of the population, which also doesn’t require formal education.

“Although girl children are sent to school, only a few stay until grade 5 in the rural areas,” Shah says.

Shah says that families are more likely to marry off the girls at an early age than to keep them in school. Other reasons for dropping out include parents’ preference of girls over boys to look after younger siblings and the requirement of a higher dowry when marrying off an educated daughter.

Principals in Nepali schools voice similar reasons.

Rammaya Tamang, principal of Champashikhar Primary School in Dhading, a neighboring district of Kathmandu, echoes Shah. 

“Parents take their daughters out of the school so that they can look after their siblings at home and help them in the domestic chores,” Tamang says disappointedly. “I go on home visits to encourage parents to send their daughters to school, but they do not get convinced.”

Another reason girls drop out is because there are no separate toilets for the women in most government schools, causing problems during menstruation, says Arjun Poudel, principal of Narayani Secondary School of Lalitpur, another neighboring district of Kathmandu.

Another reason for not sending the girls to the schools is the illiteracy of the parents, says Lila Nath Sharma, the principal of Mangaladaya School in Kathmandu.

“Parents never come to the school when we call them,” Sharma says of the teachers. “Some of them even do not know in which class their wards are studying.”

Sharma says many illiterate parents don’t care about the education of their children. Such parents earn as little as 500 rupees ($6) per day as laborers in Kathmandu. In his experience, Sharma says some parents spend their earnings on things like alcohol, leaving little money for food, let alone the education of their children.

Ram Bahadur Tamang is a parent who works as a porter. He takes a break on a corner in Kathmandu from carrying a heavy refrigerator.

“Why would I send my children to school?” Tamang asks. “They won’t find a job even if they are educated. I sent my daughter to school until she was in grade four. She learned basic reading, and I pulled her out. Right now, she is helping her mother with the chores.”

But other parents disagree.

Majhi’s illiteracy has made her adamant that her 5-year-old daughter goes to school. As her illiteracy continues to hinder her, she hopes for a better future for her daughter.

“When my daughter asks me to help her with her schoolwork, I cannot hold back my tears,” says Majhi, reaching for a nearby piece of cloth to wipe the tears rolling down her face.

The Ministry of Education has made education more affordable for families by providing free tuition and books from grades one to 10 in the government schools. The parents pay only for stationery and the examination fee.

The ministry also has a special initiative to encourage families to educate their daughters, says Chandra Thapa, school supervisor at the Kathmandu District Education Office.

“The government provides [a] special scholarship to encourage the girl children to go to school and prevent dropping out,” Thapa says. “The government provides 400 rupees ($5) for a girl per year who continues study in grade eight and 500 rupees ($6) in grade 9 and 10.”

Poudel says that the government has also been working to improve sanitation, which has made a difference in enrollment for girls in his school.

“Since over two years, the government has made it mandatory to provide separate toilets for women at all the government schools,” Poudel says. “These are being done gradually, and the dropout rates of women in this category are also decreasing accordingly.”

Nongovernmental organizations also promote education for girls. ActionAid, for example, has been working in 32 districts in Nepal on primary education, mostly in Nepal’s Terai belt, where Majhi is from.

Shah of Social Development Path says families are beginning to realize the financial benefits of educating daughters.

“The societal awareness regarding girl education has improved in recent years, except for some remote areas and conservative ethnic groups,” Shah says.

The Community Study Centre has been running informal education classes for girls and women in Kathmandu for more than six years, Paudel says. Rapid changes in the society, such as the development of technology, have made literacy more crucial for women, she says.

Paudel says that most of the women come to the center’s classes to overcome the practical difficulties in daily life to be able, for example, to use mobile phones to talk to their husbands overseas, with foreign migration for employment common in Nepal. They also want to learn the alphabet and numbers so they can identify room numbers in hospitals, write their own names and help their children with schoolwork.

Shrestha enrolled in the Community Study Centre and is now able to read and write.

“I do not know many things,” she says. “But I can identify letters and numbers. I don’t need help from anyone to make calls from the mobile phone, and hence I can send messages back home and talk to my father whenever I feel like.”

She smiles widely with a twinkle in her eyes.