KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Puspa Adhikari walks toward the gates of Saraswati Primary and Secondary School with four children scurrying behind her. As recently enrolled students at this school in Koteshwor, an area of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, the children eagerly discuss expectations for their first day in a classroom. Adhikari interjects to point out some basic classroom rules: Make no noise, and give undivided attention to the teacher.
To the children, who are between 5 and 9 years old, Adhikari is “mamu,” or mother. But to their neighbors, the 35-year-old businesswoman is a voluntary guardian for the four children. There are others like her, she says, who are supporting children who have never had the opportunity to go to school.
“The children who used to play on the streets, now go to school,” she says. “I am very happy for them.”
In an effort to increase access to education, the government has launched a campaign requesting that public figures and community members become guardians to children from disadvantaged economic backgrounds who are not in school. While the campaign has been well-received by advocates, others question whether voluntary guardianship is a sustainable solution for improving the education sector.
In recent years, Nepal has increased spending on education and developed a strategic plan to make learning inclusive and improve learning outcomes. Net enrollment ratios increased between 2010 and 2015. But some students do not complete school, and education is still out of reach for many Nepalese children. As of 2017, an estimated 159,211 primary-school children between the ages of 5 and 10 were not in school, according to the World Bank.
In April, the government introduced voluntary guardianship, complementing ongoing efforts to transform the sector. Officials, celebrities and community leaders – the target audience for the campaign – have the opportunity to send at least one child to school, without being bound to do so by a court of law, as is the case with legal guardianship.
Because primary education is free in Nepal, the government’s voluntary-guardianship campaign makes it easier to send and keep children in school. Guardians are only financially responsible for admission fees, uniforms, bags, stationery and other items, says Baikuntha Aryal, spokesman for the Ministry of Education.
As of April, 34,344 children now have guardians who are sending them to school, Aryal says.
Though voluntary, some officials and community members are describing the new campaign as a social responsibility.
“If a guardian enrolls a child in a school, it would encourage others to send their children to school, too,” Aryal says.
Adhikari says she is happy to be a guardian to four orphaned children. She provides them with food and a place to live, in addition to school-related costs, although the campaign does not require that voluntary guardians provide children with a home. The admission fee at the government-owned Saraswati Primary and Secondary School is 1,300 Nepalese rupees ($12) per student, says Puspa Raj Kunwar, the school’s principal. Uniforms go for about the same price, he says. While uniforms are affordable, paying for basic necessities can become expensive over time, he explains.
The concept of guardianship is common among Nepalese families, says Manju Maya Khadka, a teacher at the school. Young children from rural parts of the country often move to urban centers to live with family members and friends, Khadka says. But sometimes they are subjected to domestic work instead of attending school. This practice undermines the goal of the campaign, she adds.
But Aryal says that the Ministry of Education is partnering with local organizations to ensure that children’s rights are not violated.
“There are other agencies that look into the issue of whether guardians make children do household chores,” he says.
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.