Girls’ access to education effects the whole society

Girls’ access to education effects the whole society

“Girls’ and boys’ equal access to education has fundamental impacts on developments in societies and on individuals’ opportunities to advance in life,” says Kati Bhose, Special Adviser on Development Policy at Finland’s Embassy in Nepal. Three questions about development cooperation is a series of interviews with specialists in the Foreign Service

Upper secondary school students in Chawara Chautara village in November 2019. Photo: Hanna Päivärinta/MFA

1. Why are you working to promote girls’ rights?

In my current post at Finland’s Embassy in Nepal, one of my responsibilities is equality work as part of Finland's development cooperation. Gender equality issues get a strong emphasis in my work, which focuses on education and democracy development.

Nainen katsoo ylös papereista ja hänellä on kukkaseppele kaulassa.
Special Adviser Kati Bhose at a meeting related to the monitoring of an education programme. Photo: Katriina Apajalahti

Equal opportunities to education is a fundamental issue. If half of the population are poorly educated, this shows in the development of the whole society.

The right to education is a human rights issue; education is key when people are looking for employment and also otherwise trying to get forward in life.

More than before has to be done to improve the quality of education, and special emphasis must be placed on teacher training. It would be important to have more female teachers; at present, approximately one fifth of teachers in lower secondary education in Nepal are women. Teachers can have a positive influence on pupils’ identity development.

Having both male and female teaches in schools contributes to the building of a more equal society.

2. What improvements have taken place in girls’ position in Nepal and what makes you happy? What discourages you?

Finland is a long-term supporter of the education sector in Nepal, and it's gratifying to see that our development cooperation has led to positive results. Nowadays both girls and boys enrol in primary school, and the number of girls who continue to lower secondary education is on the increase. On the upper secondary grades 9 to 10, girls slightly outnumber boys. 

The equality perspective is attended to also in Finland's development cooperation in the water sector. Toilets and water points in the vicinity of schools play a very important role in that girls continue to attend school, especially when they are having their periods.

Menstruation is no longer such a big taboo as it used to be before. This is another reason for the importance of a greater number of female teachers in upper secondary schools.

The repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic is depressing.  Nepal closed all schools in March and is unlikely to reopen them this year.  This will have dramatic effects on learning outcomes.

We have done a lot to lower the drop-out rate but there is a risk that children coming from low-income families end up to go to work and will not return to school. A growing number of child marriages is also a real threat, especially for girls.

3. What would you like to say to those who think that there is no point in trying to change cultural traditions?

Traditions that affect human rights and are harmful to individuals cannot be accepted. For example, isolating women in separate huts when they are menstruating is such a matter – and the problem has been addressed. Another example is child marriages.

I can tell that we have managed to change traditions and people's behaviour. It may be impossible to change the ultimate belief or cultural norm behind a tradition, but solutions to different situations can be found.

Vuoren laella seisoo ryhmä ihmisiä. Taustalla kaksi nepalilaista vuoristoasukasta kulkee polkua pitkin.
The aim of a field visit in Far West was to see how changes in social norms and behaviour can be measured. Photo: UN Women

In one of our water projects, the problem was that the community in question didn’t allow people representing the Dalits caste to use the water point that was built for the village. People in the village community believed that if Dalits used the same tap, the water would become contaminated. As a result of our advocacy work, the water point is now available to the whole community. A new mental image of water coming from an inexhaustible spring of water helped people to accept that the same tap could be used by all. We didn’t manage to change the belief but succeeded in changing people's behaviour. This means that we have come a long way forward!

Some norms and traditions are deep-rooted models of behaviour, which differentiate between people based on sex, age, caste or ethnic origin, language or, for instance, religion. Such behavioural models weaken women’s, girls’ and vulnerable groups’ opportunities to access education, healthcare and social security services.

These so-called harmful practices or norms are not separate or random habits, but they are often considered to be an integral element of local culture – this is despite people know that they are harmful for the development of individuals.

It's clear that not all women and girls are in an equally disadvantageous position, and all men and boys are not equally privileged. When promoting equality, we do not concentrate only on gender and access to services or on addressing the vulnerability of women and girls. The context is critical and exclusion or marginalisation is a relative phenomenon.

Hanna Päivärinta

The author works as a Communications Officer at the Department for Communications in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.