The Right to Education

Photo by Dulce Foster
As my own daughter headed back to school, I found myself thinking about another group of girls at a school halfway around the world.  Unlike my three kids, who are driven to their well-appointed classrooms on the first day because they have too many school supplies to carry, the kids at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) in Nepal do their work on rickety desks in cramped classrooms.  These kids in pre-K through 10th grade walk to school – some an hour each way – six days a week because this school provides the opportunity to realize their human right to education.
 In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.
Sankhu-Palubari Community School
Photo by Dulce Foster
     Overwhelming as those numbers are, there are pinpricks of light that give me hope that they will someday change.  I saw one when I visited Nepal for the first time in March 2011.  Opened inSeptember 1999, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School is a partnership between The Advocates for Human Rights, Hoste Hainse (a Nepali NGO), the local School Management Committee, and the dedicated teaching staff.  The school now enrolls more than300 students in grades pre-K-9, and also provides scholarships for graduates who continue on to 10th grade.
The goals of the Sankhu-Palubari Community School Project are to prevent child labor, encourage gender parity in education, increase literacy rates, and improve the lives and well-being of the neediest children in the area.   This year, the school has successfully met goals for gender parity among students in both the primary and lower secondary grades. For the 2011-2012 school year, 147 of the 283 students in pre-school through eighth grade are girls. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, 15 of the 31 students in ninth and tenth grade are young women.
Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married or enter domestic work. Their efforts have paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in most of the grades at SPCS.
     Most of the students’ families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Many of them are from disadvantaged groups such as the Tamang.  An indigenous group with their own culture and language, the Tamang students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate.
8th Grade Class
Photo by Dulce Foster
The impact of the school both on the individual students and on the community over the past 12 years has been profound.  As part of our evaluation and monitoring process, our team interviewed approximately 60% of the parents of students atthe school in March.  It was clear to me that parents value the education that their children are receiving and, seeing the value, have ensured that the younger siblings are also enrolled in school rather than put to work.  Twelve year sago, there were many students in the area out of school but now most are attending school. I could also see the physical benefits that the students derived from attending school when they stood next to their parents.  Even the 5th grade girls towered over their parents, illustrating the simple cause-and-effect of adequate nutrition, wellness checkups, and not having to work in the fields from a very young age.
      Challenges certainly remain, particularly as the cost of operating the school continues to rise. But so far two classes of students who started at the school in kindergarten have graduated from the 10th grade; they all received either high distinction or first division on their School Leaving Certificate examinations.
Morning Assembly
Photo by Dulce Foster
The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  In particular, the effect that these girls have on their community, their country and – hopefully, the world – will be thrilling to watch.