Photo: Sarah Petzl

During my fieldwork in Ilam district, Eastern Nepal, I had the chance to visit many different homes, and to experience parts of the everyday life of Nepali families. So far, in every single stay, I was impressed by the children’s motivation for doing homework until late in the evening, and their great ability to speak English. One of them, a 4,5-years old was copying mathematical rules and letters several times, “just for fun, as he is doing it every evening”, as his older brother told me.

Studying late into the night. Photo: Sarah Petzl

High expectations: “A good education” for getting “a good job” in the future

Not only are children’s motivations high, so are those of their parents. Throughout all conducted interviews there is a consistency that education is not only the main expense, but also the most important reason to save money for and to invest in the future. The expectations of parents are high. A “good education” will lead to a “good job” in the future. Good means in this case some kind of work with a regular income on an employed basis. Many families have taken up several loans from microfirms, neighbours and friends to pay for their children’s education. This does not come without consequences. Especially farmers and people working in the agriculture sector are highly dependent on periods of good income to pay back their loans.

The parent’s biggest wish is to send their children to boarding schools, private schools that teach only in English. However, fees are high. 4500 RS (Nepali Rupees) in admission fee and 1500 RS a month has to be paid for the Green Valley School in Ilam. Exam fees, uniform fees, school utilities, lunch costs - just to name a few extra expenses - are not included in the monthly fees. “We cannot keep our children just for two months there, they need 4-5 years for completing their education, but we cannot afford it, we don’t have good income, so, we are sending our children to ordinary school. No one can deny it, it is all about the money”.

 However, the requirements from parents are not only in financial terms. “Why is my child going to school if I need to teach her English?”, as one mother was asking. Especially women feel the pressure to help and support their children at doing their homework. This led recently to the formation of an English class: A group of mothers were demanding an English course to learn basic English skills to support their children in doing their homework. The result, mothers are now meeting up on a daily basis for 2-3 hours to attend a free English course at the ‘American corner’ library in Ilam.

Learning about children's rights. Photo: Sarah Petzl

Damages of this year’s earthquake and the last rainy season swallow the money of households

The effort of individuals and households regarding education is enormous. Children walk up to two hours every day to reach their school, and parents use any possibility to send their children to districts where educational possibilities seem to be better. Often one part or even both parts of the parents are working abroad and will return “only when the children have finished their education”. However, the investment in education has limitations for all families that have been interviewed. The disastrous earthquake in April this year and the last rainy season left many houses with damages of which repairs will swallow huge sums of savings and money. “I have not thought (of expanding the farming), he (my husband) may come now (from Qatar), and this year we must rebuild our damaged home, damaged by the earthquake. That’s why he will come and build our home, and afterwards we’ll plan for farming. Let’s see how much it will be left”, as one participant from Sangrumba in Ilam told me.


The issue of who is paying for the fees

Regarding school fees, some other issues arise. Across all households in which interviews have been conducted, the school expenses get paid by the fathers, as the income of the mothers is usually considerably lower. Does it matter who is paying for school fees? Apparently, it does. Since education has such a high value in society, the husband’s income gain in power when he is paying for the school fees and all utilities. “I cannot talk openly to my husband, he earns a lot more than me and he pays for the ‘big things’, the school fees. What do I have to say then?” Clearly, the ability to pay for children’s education - for the “big things” - is an important issue in households that may have disempowering effects for women.

What is the solution then? Clearly, to support women in their stride for economic self-sustainability in order to make them capable to pay for “big things” is one possibility. Another possibility is to provide equal opportunities in education for children by reducing school fees or - even better - providing free education. In a diverse society like in Nepal, free education would not only further increase the literacy rate, but would give disadvantaged groups the possibility to receive the same education as students from more advantaged groups. Free education could thus be an important contributor to more equality in the current enormously unequal society of Nepal.

Photo: Sarah Petzl

Greater developmental efforts are needed

During the excitements of the last days when the first democratic constitution was launched in Nepal, the atmosphere in Ilam was mixed. While many people were dancing in the streets, lightning candles, waving flags and welcoming the new constitution, others were protesting and calling for strikes.

Strikes (blockades) that can be experienced in Ilam about every second day in average influences not only the farmer’s ability to sell their produces on the market, but also the transportation to school and school lessons in general. Officially, schools must be closed on strikes. “We are studying secretly. If they would find out, they’ll come and fight”. This statement by a female student may be exaggerated. However, in Ilam many teachers hold secret lessons at colleges to prepare students for the upcoming exams.

The issue of education is influenced by many factors of the society, and it touches upon greater developmental efforts in many dimensions. Securing and easing access and transportation to primary, secondary and higher education, and to lower school fees to ensure more equal opportunities in education could be a promising start. After endorsing its first democratic constitution, it will be interesting to follow its acceptance from Nepali people and the effort of the state to put the constitution into practice.

The motivation in the society of Ilam is definitely present, now it needs further developmental efforts to pilot this opportunity in the right direction.

Lightning candles for welcoming the first democratic constitution. Photo: Sarah Petzl

(This report is based on interviews and conversations with local people in Ilam during the first four weeks of my fieldwork)