Nepal: Reaching the most disadvantaged children with education

Barsha Kumari Pashawal in her (class five) classroom at Shree Ram Narayan Ayodhaya School, Pipra rural municipality, Mahottari District, Ward 4, Nepal.
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story highlights

  • The Girls' Access to School (GATE) program offers 9 months of classes to vulnerable girls to prepare them for public school.
  • 12-year-old Barsha, who had never attended school, is one of the beneficiaries of this program, and got the opportunity to learn Nepali, English, math, social studies and science.
  • The GATE program relies on the Equity Index to target its support. This index was developed with GPE’s support and captures data on disparities in education. Since its launch in 2016, the number of out-of-school children in targeted districts has decreased by 60%.
Map of Nepal

Two years ago, Barsha, a 12-year-old girl living in the Pipara municipality of Nepal’s Mahottari district, was not going to school.

Barsha belongs to a community historically classified as one of the lowest in Nepal’s caste system (the Dalit). Although many Nepali children have gained access to education over the past years through the efforts of the government and development partners, including GPE, certain groups, like the Dalit, have not benefitted from these gains, increasing the gap between them and the rest of the country’s population.

In Barsha’s community, it was common for girls not to enroll in school at all or to drop out after primary education, in many cases due to arranged marriages well before the current legal minimum age of 20. Both Barsha’s mother and older sister were married and had children before they had reached their mid-teens.

Barsha’s parents, neither of whom were able to go to school, felt they could not afford to send her to school. Although public education in Nepal is free, families do need to cover transport and other costs (e.g. uniforms). Barsha’s attendance at school would also mean she was no longer able to help with household chores.

Barsha's mother
“We thought, ‘Who will look after the children and the goats?’ We needed our daughter to stay home and help with the work around the house”
Barsha’s mother

Convincing families to send girls to catch-up classes

Barriers to Barsha’s schooling began to look a lot less formidable when an outreach officer, Chandra Devi Mahara from the GATE program convinced Barsha’s parents to allow her to join 24 other unschooled girls between the ages of 10 and 14 in a non-formal catch-up class that meets two hours a day, six days a week for nine months.

By using adapted curriculum and teaching methods, the girls attending these classes are brought up to an age-appropriate level of education before they continue their learning in a regular school. These classes are part of the Girls' Access to School (GATE) program, which is jointly funded by UNICEF and the Nepalese government.

  • Chandra Devi Mahara is a facilitator for the GATE program. She is a class ten graduate and member of the community in which she facilitates a class of 25 girls aged 10-14 who have never been to school in a nine-month program to be able to enroll in mainstream education.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Over the past two years, the GATE program has facilitated the enrollment or re-enrollment of over 10,000 out-of-school girls whose level of education significantly lagged behind that of their peers, meaning they could not join schools through the regular enrollment process.

The program collaborates with the girls’ parents and surrounding schools to ensure that those who complete it are supported in their transition to formal education. This has resulted in over 85% of the participants completing their basic education, despite their challenging circumstances.

Through several interactions with Mahara, Barsha’s parents became convinced of the need for their daughter to enroll in the program Barsha was thrilled on hearing the news, and especially excited about having access to school books.

Nepal acts to improve equity in education

The GATE program is one of many programs emanating from Nepal’s 2014 Consolidated Equity Strategy for the School Education Sector.

The strategy was launched to allow assessment and comparison of disparities in education outcomes across Nepal and, based on this, develop targeted interventions that respond to identified needs to reduce these disparities.

Accordingly, the “Equity Index” was adopted by the government to allow comparison of districts and municipalities based on their disparities in access, participation and learning.

The districts identified through the Equity Index ranking as having the highest disparities were provided with additional resources (including government budget) and interventions.

The implementation of the equity strategy, including the identification of districts and the provision of additional budget and targeted interventions, were selected by the government and development partners as an indicator for the results-based financing component of the GPE grant to Nepal.

With the recent introduction of a federal structure in the country, which led to the previous 75 districts being replaced by 753 municipalities, the government has since calculated the equity index for all municipalities, allowing further targeting of resources.

Pipara municipality, where Barsha lives, is one of the municipalities within the country’s 15 most disadvantaged districts.

  • Barsha Kumari Pashawal in her (class five) classroom at Shree Ram Narayan Ayodhaya School, Pipra rural municipality, Mahottari District, Ward 4, Nepal.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

How the Equity Index works

With Nepal having made significant strides on enrollment in the past decade, it is important to support the government in evidence-based strategies to target its limited resources to those who have not yet benefitted from this progress.

The Equity Index draws on Nepal’s education management information system (EMIS) data as well as household survey data on gender, geography, socio-economic status, ethnicity, caste and disability.

The index was developed by the government with support from the Data Must Speak Initiative, which aims to strengthen the quality and use of data for needs-based planning. The initiative is funded by GPE and implemented by UNICEF in Nepal, Madagascar, the Philippines, Togo and Zambia.

The Equity Index allows education planners to understand the nature of barriers to access, participation and learning and compare the severity of these across communities. Looking at disparities rather than averages in the Nepal education sector is crucial to ensure efforts are targeted to those most in need.

For example, a child in Nepal on average receives 6.7 years of the possible 10 years of schooling. While not optimal, it places Nepal above many other countries in the region, including India and Pakistan. However, when disaggregating this number into groups of children based on gender, location, socio-economic status and caste and ethnicity, the data reveal a group of disadvantaged girls with less than two years of schooling on average.

Education planners within the local governments that have been selected for targeted interventions are also supported to understand where the disparities are the largest (access, participation or learning) and which factors relating to the index’s dimensions are the most dominant.

Based on this analysis, the planners then develop implementation plans that allow utilization of the additional budget for targeted interventions to reduce these disparities. When selecting these interventions, they rely on those that have been proven to be successful in similar contexts, including:

  • separate toilets and sanitary napkins for girls
  • availability of female teachers, who typically give girls the confidence to learn and stay in school
  • support for teachers in madrasas (Islamic schools) with materials and training to also teach secular subjects in line with the official curriculum
  • school-feeding programs
  • scholarships that make schooling more affordable for girls
  • annual enrollment and welcome-to-school campaigns
  • education for parents about the value of schooling
  • bikes to ease girls’ journeys to and from school.

In just a few short years, the Equity Index has generated impressive progress. More resources than ever have flowed to municipalities within the 15 districts identified for targeted interventions. 

In 2019, independent verification confirmed a 60% reduction in out-of-school children since the introduction in 2016 of the Equity Index within the 15 targeted districts.

GPE's interventions contributed to decrease the number of out-of-school children

Finding the hardest-to-reach children

Based on this success, the government and development partners are looking into how to apply the Equity Index and equity strategy implementation plans nationally.

About 2.7% of children – approximately 900,000 in total – are still out of school in Nepal. Armed with the information generated by the Equity Index and through the analysis carried out by the planners, the government is conducting a major outreach campaign to get these remaining children into schools.

  • Barsha Kumari Pashawal, 12, does her homework accompanied by her younger brother Badal, 5.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

A chance to improve the odds of disadvantaged children

Through the GATE program, Barsha had the opportunity to learn Nepali, English, math, social studies and science. She attended every day and took her studies seriously. While most girls who complete the program transition to class two or three in formal education, Barsha did well enough to be enrolled in class five.

The program has helped Barsha step away from a life that offered her few opportunities to one where she has more ways to set her own path. Her dream is to become a teacher in the same school where she studies now, and she is adamant that she will not marry before the age of 20.

As Nepal continues to work on meeting its commitment of ensuring all children have access to quality education in a child-friendly and sensitive learning environment, the children who remain unable to attend school face the biggest and most complicated barriers.

Applying evidence-based and need-based approaches (i.e. understanding who these children are, where they are, why they are not in school and what is needed to change this), as is being done with the use of the Equity Index and the planning processes based on its data, will be crucial to fulfill this commitment.

  • Barsha's parents Ritiya Devi Pashawal and Binod Pashawal.
    Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
“Children are and have always been ready to go to school and learn; it is their context that creates barriers to doing so. Our duty is to detect and take down those barriers, even if it becomes increasingly complicated as we attempt to get to those children who are the hardest to reach”
Kamal Pokhrel
Joint secretary at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in Nepal

October 2020