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NEPAL: Education Far More than ABCs – Experts

Lynette Lee Corporal

KATHMANDU, Jun 13 2008 (IPS) - Far more than just the learning of ABCs and 123s, education should be playing a transformative role in children’s lives if it is to ensure them a better and more ‘equal’ and gender-responsive future.

“Gender is a trigger and catalyst that will deepen our understanding of transformative education in order to benefit girls and boys,” said May Rihani, senior vice president and director of the Global Learning Group, one of the members of the Global Advisory Committee of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI).

At the Jun. 11-12 meeting here of the UNGEI, with the support of United Nations agencies, international agencies, civil society and the media, participants pledged their commitments to establish a ‘Gender Equality Watch’ to monitor children’s rights to quality education.

“The UNGEI partnership calls on ministries of education, bilateral partners and civil society to respond to the education needs of women and girls. The forthcoming Education for All High-Level Group Meeting in December offers a unique chance to address these issues through global commitment,” said the UNGEI’s Global Advisory Committee in a statement Thursday.

“There’s a very real need for UNGEI to focus on issues of transitions and in improving knowledge gaps for children, especially for invisible or hard-to- reach groups,” said Baela Raza Jamil, chair of the Pakistan-based non- government organisation Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, one of UNGEI’s Asia- Pacific regional partners.

Indeed, several recommendations were presented at the end of UNGEI meeting, which centred around ‘Equity, Gender and Quality in Education in Asia-Pacific’.

In a region saddled by the lack of trained female teachers, experts pushed for comprehensive and regular training for female educators, the expansion of post-primary opportunities for girls, and the development of a database on teachers.

One country grappling with a serious shortage of female teachers is Afghanistan. “The shortage of female teachers in Afghanistan is such that they consist of 38 percent of the whole teacher population only,” said Susan Wardak, director of the Teacher Education Department director of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education.

What is more alarming, she added, is the danger posed by extremist Muslim groups – such as the Taliban – to female teachers. “There are open threats to kill and kidnap female teachers. There is even a bounty of 50,000 Afghanis [1,000 dollars] for every female teacher killed in certain parts of the country,” she added.

Still, as of 2007, 35 percent of teachers in Afghanistan’s provinces were women, a huge jump from 14 percent in 2003. In addition, 14 new teacher- training colleges have been established in the country. Incentive schemes for the recruitment and training of female teachers are being prepared.

Girls’ participation in schools and involvement in alternative learning is another area the UNGEI Global Advisory Committee wants to look into. Among its concerns are to “ensure the safety of girls in and around schools, offer incentives in cash and kind to girls and other marginalised groups, and to provide free and compulsory basic education”.

While the number of out-of-school children has gone down in 19 countries in South Asia and East Asia-Pacific from 1999 to 2005, the number of girls among these out-of-school children has been increasing.

According to UNGEI, South Asia only had 79 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in secondary school in 2005. At present, there are still 72 million children – a majority of them girls – that are out of school worldwide.

Marginalised and ‘unreached’ children are among those more severely affected by the lack of gender-responsive education in schools and communities. In Nepal alone, only eight percent of girls belonging to the Dalit (low caste) communities are able to reach fifth grade. Most of them drop out from school either to find work or get married.

Quality education, if implemented correctly, is believed to contribute to an improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio. Other recommendations focused on: the creation of gender-responsive curricula and textbooks, quality infrastructure, security, learning, water, sanitation and health, as well as the efficient education management of teachers and related resources.

“Let’s not stay within our gender and education cocoon. A multi-sectoral response is what’s needed with regards to the development of a young girl and this includes both the education and health sectors,” said Ugochi Daniels, Nepal representative of the United Nations Population Fund.

Offering female students a smooth school-to-work transition is also a vital part in the proposed gender-responsive education. Improving women’s chances of finding good jobs at the right age and without fear of discrimination are among the areas that policymakers and educators are urged to tackle.

Statistics show that women comprised 40 percent of employees in non- agricultural wage labour in 2005, more than the world average of 39 percent. South Asia is at the bottom, with only 18 percent of women employed.

UNGEI co-chair and executive director Penina Mlama pointed out that things are now being done on the practical level.

“The challenge for us at UNGEI is how to learn from what is already working and use it to address issues in our own situations. We have been talking about these issues from one conference to another and it’s now time for us to apply what we know on the ground,” said Penina, who is also the director of Campaign for Female Education.

The Education for All flagship movement, which aims to narrow the gender gap in primary and secondary education, is also seen as being in a position to “influence donors, national policies relating to girls’ education and mobilising resources towards quality education”.

In line with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, the UNGEI seeks to see children completing primary and secondary school, and having equal access to all levels of education by 2015.

With the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as its lead agency, UNGEI has the support of 18 organisations, with current co-chairs being the Norwegian Agency for Development and the Campaign for Female Education.

Other partners include Britain’s Department for International Development, World Bank, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, World Vision International and the Forum for African Women Educationalists, to name a few.

“We need to keep in mind that transitions and lifelong learning make sense. Action has to be everywhere, in classrooms, schools, and communities. The sharing of experiences is extremely important, so are data and knowledge, as well as human and financial resources,” said World Bank education specialist Mercy Tembon. “The main challenge now is to move from good intentions to actions.”

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