TACOMA, Washington — Girls’ education in Nepal faces numerous barriers that prevent girls from staying in school and making autonomous life choices. To combat this, a program called Sisters for Sisters’ Education is providing young girls with “Big Sister” mentors that encourage them to pursue their education and tackle harmful cultural stereotypes.
Barriers to Girls’ Education in Nepal
In Nepal, significant progress has been made in increasing enrollment in school for both boys and girls. In fact, there is almost an equivalent number of boys and girls attending primary school now. However, girls have much lower retention rates than their male peers. Many girls are unable to bridge the gap into secondary school, and they either marry or enter the workforce due to societal pressure.
These outcomes are much higher for girls struggling with poverty, living in rural areas or those who have been victims of gender-based violence. This leaves the most underprivileged girls even more prone to exploitation and overall vulnerability.
Child marriage rates in Nepal are a large contributor to suppressing girls’ autonomy and shortening their education. In Nepal, 40% of girls are married before they turn 18, even though Nepal’s government mandates a minimum of 20 years of age for marriage. While the government has attempted to instill further regulations, these often go unenforced. Instead, societal transitions moderate the facilitation of child marriage.
Many of these marriages are arranged, with numerous girls being pledged into marriage before they have gone through puberty. Sometimes, families struggling with poverty will conduct an arranged marriage for their young daughter so they no longer have to care for her. Additionally, many girls are forced into the workforce instead of attending secondary education, so they are unable to make high wages and are often forced to depend on marriage for life security. Overall, this facilitates girls and women being valued less than boys and men, discouraging girls’ education in Nepal.
Sisters for Sisters’ Education
VSO International identified these unresolved problems that discourage girls’ education in Nepal, and created Sisters for Sisters’ Education. This program works at the community level, matching school-aged “Little Sisters” with older “Big Sisters” from the same community. The Big Sisters serve as mentors, cheerleaders and educators for Little Sisters, providing them with advice and resources to further their education. Additionally, Big Sisters work with the Little Sister’s parents to convince them of the importance of their daughter attending school and having ample time to complete homework. Currently, almost 10,000 girls in marginalized communities have been reached through this program.
The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Ananda Paude, the Head of Program in VSO Nepal. Dr. Paude has helped in the implementation and evaluation of Sisters for Sisters’ Education and was able to speak about the wonderful successes the program has achieved. Their biggest success is the marked increase in girls’ education in Nepal. Little Sisters have become leaders in the classroom and the community, and they have become empowered to speak up in class and further their education. Dr. Paude noted how even outsiders can identify Little Sisters as key participants in their classes, and he praised them by saying, “The classroom level interaction and engagement of the Little Sisters is very active and they are taking a lead role in classroom discussions and learning process.” In fact, an overwhelming majority of these Little Sisters have reported that their Big Sisters have helped them feel empowered to stay in school, showing how this program has reduced barriers to girls’ education in Nepal.
How Big Sisters Impact Girls’ Education
Sisters for Sisters’ Education trains their Big Sisters so that they can provide the best support system possible for their Little Sisters. Big Sisters are trained in how to provide mentoring and coaching to young girls, with their main goals being to encourage girls to complete their schooling and to delay marriage until after they have finished. Dr. Paude added, “[Big Sisters are] not only supporting their Little Sister’s education, but they are also supporting their other life skills, such as reproductive health and hygiene.” Big Sisters are also trained in self-defense practices, so they can teach their Little Sisters how to be as safe as possible.
Dr. Paude also spoke about how Big Sisters are implementers of change in their communities. With regards to Big Sisters’ training, he said, “We are also providing them training on gender and social inclusion. How to create an inclusive society… and how to minimize the traditional harmful practices in society.” Because of this, Big Sisters teach their Little Sisters about the dangers of gender-based violence and empower them to transcend the barriers their society attempts to confine them in. Sisters for Sisters’ Education has been incredibly beneficial for Nepal communities and has allowed some harmful cultural norms to be minimized. Overall, this program has facilitated girls’ education in Nepal, but it has also gone above and beyond in safeguarding and empowering these girls as well.
Sisters for Sisters’ Education has been a tremendous success. Dr. Paude spoke to the receptivity of the community by saying, “The local governments are very excited and inspired.” The governments have been consulted and included in this program, and their excitement about it reflects the possibility for sustained long-term change. This program will soon be implemented in Nigeria as well, in the hopes of spreading these successes to other countries.
– Hannah Allbery
Photo: With permission from VSO International