College is closed for winter vacation, and I am finally home. After 6 months of being far from my home, I feel so comfortable and so warm on my own old wooden bed where I used to lie and dream for over ten years. I rise early and eagerly from my comfort, though it is into the shivery cold, so I can sit near mother in the kitchen where she is making tea to welcome the golden break of day. As I step down toward the yard from my room toward the kitchen I see Sita Aunt, who lives next door, sitting near the door of our kitchen. She gives me a glare filled with stuffs of her narrow mind because I am not a girl as she wants to see. I just give her a smile and ask her how she is.
Mother’s traditional, wood burning clay stove has been making the kitchen room smoky, so mother is coughing and wiping her tears with the hem of her sari. She scolds me out of the room to protect me, though she Is surrounded by that nasty smoke. The tenderness of my mother’s heart touches me instantly and deeply. As I watch her there, I feel deeply my gratitude for her extraordinary support of my learning, remembering how she always did what she could to support my ability to go to school and study, always encouraging me to advance to higher education. The role she played, the love she showered, the care she gave was surely a mark of a special mother.
Entering the kitchen, I see a pile of plates and cooking pots from last night’s dinner. I pick them up and turn to the nearby tap to wash. Being able to do this again after being gone from home brings me warm and toasty feelings inside, so my hands ignore the sensation of the frosty water.
But suddenly I shiver, as I hear the shrill words from Sita Aunt, who continues to watch me from the kitchen door. “It’s useless for girls to study; in the end her job will be washing dishes!” Being reminded of the hard reality of this devastating attitude immediately drives away the warmth of my comfort at being home. This doesn’t surprise me though. I already acknowledged her narrow attitude many years before when she made her two daughters leave school when we were in second grade together.
My mind flashes back to the day when my two intimate and beloved friends were pulled from school. I had wept as I begged Sita aunt to allow my friends to stay in school. But my tears only won me her outrage: “It’s enough studying for my daughters. They know enough to read their husband’s letters. If they study more, they will chase other boys.”
Woman who can read and write is accused of witchcraft
Basanti was my middle-aged neighboring aunt. She always used to carry a stick when she left the house. I still remember the garland of Rudraksh seed, a seed used for prayers in the mainstream Hindu tradition that she wore around her neck. When I used to be at her home she always appeared sitting with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Hindu religious books. I was fond of listening to her tell stories from them which were filled with spirituality, peace, love, courage and diplomacy. I loved her soft voice, peaceful behavior and the love and respect she used to show to everyone. Somehow, this woman whom I idolized was being accused of witchcraft.
At that time I was too young to analyze those matters deeply. I asked my mother about these accusations, and she explained, “People think that women who read religious books and chant mantras are witches. Since most of the people in our society are illiterate, they believe that she must be using witchcraft to be able to do that. And for her to be so involved in the religious practices that men usually do, that frightens them too. So they accuse her and try to make here an outcast.”Oh! This revelation infuriated me. My mother’s words that “most of the people are illiterate,” was completely new to me at that time, and suddenly I realized how people’s illiteracy set their minds to misinterpret things! I then felt the effect of illiteracy on our culture. My respect for her increased.
Core Bias toward Girls and Women in Nepalese Culture
The mindset of Sita aunt and the story of Basanti aunt reflect the reality of Nepalese society where the people who cover more than half of the sky -- girls and women -- have been denied education due to social and cultural values.
The educational system in Nepal did begin to reform after the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1950. Before then, getting a chance to study was nearly impossible for common people. After the Rana regime, common Nepalese boys were able to enroll in school. Even girls’ opportunities rose at this time. According to the data published by the Nepalese Ministry of Education (2011 At a Glance) girl’s education rate between 1952 and 1954 was 0.7%. By 1960 it reached up to 1.8%. Over twenty years later, in 1981, the rate increased to 12% and in 1991, when the multi-party democratic system began after the end of the Panchayat regime, and in 2001 when the Maoist armed conflict was at its peak, 25.0% and 42.8% of girls were in school, respectively. Political change did have a positive impact on cultural norms for education, including the rate of female’s literacy, but in my experience the tragedy of girls losing the chance for education continues, and more change is desperately needed.
Different patterns of discrimination - the one closest to my heart
Poverty is one of the root barriers to education for everyone, but especially for girls. After finishing my intermediate level, I joined organizations working in remote villages. This experience highlighted this problem for me. Some families who were very poor would not send any children to school, but if any government school was nearby they would send their boys – and boys only. Families with some resources would send their daughters to government school and boys to private boarding school.
In a hilly region where I served more than a year an example of this bias especially touched my heart.
Pashang and Tshering were brother and sister, only 1 and 1/2 years apart. I used to bring them gifts of chocolate when I visited their village close to where I worked. To see them together going to school always with lots of desires and hopes brought a smile to my heart. I used to thank their parents.
Once after a short break I went back to visit them, and as soon as I caught a glance of Tshering, shivers washed over me. There during the school day Tshering sat in her yard with her school uniform on, feeding her little brother. I asked her why she wasn’t in school, and her eyes became moist. She leaned her head toward the ground. When her mother gave birth to a new baby, Tshering was forced to leave school to care for him while her parents worked. They did not ask her brother Pashang to leave school, because as their son he would be their crutch in old age. The son is regarded as the source of support for parents in their old age, the key to open the door of heaven after their death. The girls on the other hand are given away, to become the property of others.
Tshering’s tears struck me so severely. Though education is equally important to everyone, it is always the girls who will be denied the right to it.
I touched Tshering’s rosy cheeks to wipe the teardrops from her eyes. I pulled her to me inside my arm and could feel the heaving of her sobs and the pounding of her heart as she cried to return to school. I was helpless to make her dream come true as her parents had no other option for caring for their baby while they worked.
I remembered Tshering telling me her dreams long before, and those spoiled desires stuck me to the core. The bitter reality of either having to leave school or never getting to go to school at all is still alive in my country. When I am reminded of it, I see Tshering’s tear. Unfortunately, as the Book Nepali women Rising by Prativa Subedi explains, 77% of girls between 6-15 years old leave school.
Traditional values remain a barrier to education for girls. Menstruation is still considered impure, and during that time it is considered a sin to touch books or go school. A study shows that 65.6% of female teachers still maintain this belief (Status of Female Teachers in Nepal, by Bishta M., published by UNESCO, 2006) and this practice definitely affect the girl’s attendance in school. Likewise, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education, Mr. Babukaji Karki admits that social values and religious beliefs are key factors that hold girls back in all aspects of their lives including education. He clarifies that the situation is changing just as discrimination is changing.
Government’s strategy: Ray of hope
Education is a fundamental right for everyone. It makes us dignified, confident and skilled. Gratefully, the government understands this and has introduced many strategies to increase girls’ literacy rate. The Ministry of Education has launched the requirement to recruit two female teachers in each school to increase the number of girl students, and the result is satisfactory. Similarly, girls’ feeder hostels have been providing shelter and food for many girls from remote parts to attend school. The government already started to construct separate toilets for girls because most of the girls in village are absent during their menstruation due to lack of toilet.
This has helped to some extent. In comparison with previous times, there is hope for the future. We must strive to equalize the ratio between girls’ and boys’ education, not only in urban areas but also in remote villages where females’ literacy rate is less than in urban areas.
The government’s policy is a valuable start, but before sustainable, meaningful change can occur it is essential to transform the conservative, discriminating mindset of our culture.
First teacher is the mother
Education starts from one’s own family, and the first teacher is always the mother. Her attitude and support play the vital role in the likelihood daughters will be educated. My mother, being just a literate woman in stereotypic society, played an indispensable role in enabling me to achieve my education career. And yes, I want to make my daughter a dignified person by providing her a good education. The Nepalese government’s Non Formal Education program, education provided informally to illiterate people in their community, is very effective. This program must be continued and conducted especially for the rural women who are living their life in dark without education. That can effectively help many mothers to be literate.
What we learn in school is very important to develop our frame of mind. So a school’s curriculum must be influential. As stories easily influence the children’s mind, stories that are included in courses can be focusing on girl’s education by making the example of how an educated girl/ woman/ mother can make a society happy and developed. Such a curriculum would influence all the students, increasing support for educating girls across families and communities.
And this is the fact that we must understand: if we educate our daughter she will make her children rich by her valuable skill and she will make our son in law’s family happy. Is not that what makes a society happy?
Nepalese society needs to keep in mind Mahatma Gandhi’s observation: “Educating a man is educating an individual, while educating a woman is educating a family.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012: Frontline Journals