Nepali Times
Fleeing school


Even by the insane standards of Nepal's conflict, Nepalganj had not seen anything like it: the bombing of six schools last month to force them to close.

With the SLC exams due on 27 March, more than 2,000 schools in the far west have begun to reopen after nearly a month. More than 500,000 students had been affected by the Maoist threats, which seemed to be aimed at maximum disruption of normal life.

"After the bombings, children are still terrorised and distracted. They cannot concentrate on their studies," says a teacher from Mahendra High School here. A high school student who doesn't want to be named says: "I am afraid, what if they bomb us again?"

Although the schools have opened, they have done so in defiance of the Maoist call for a strike and school authorities throughout the region fear retaliation by the rebels.

Meanwhile, Nepal's donors who have been involved in supporting education have reacted with outrage at sustained and deliberate attacks on the school system. "It is unacceptable for conflict to enter the classroom," UNICEF's Nepal representative, Suomi Sakai, told us, "children, their families and teachers need to feel confident that schools are a safe haven, free from violence and threats."

But if this is the situation in Nepalganj, things are much worse in the villages. Teachers from districts across Nepal say hundreds of thousands of students haven't been able to prepare for their exams and it looks like exams can only be held in district headquarters for security reasons.

"We have not yet been able to finalise the exam centres due to this situation," explains Bishnu Prasad Thaiba, Banke DEO.

Private schools in the towns have announced that they will be holding two exams in one day and government schools have arranged to hold exams at night also to cope with students coming for exams from outlying areas.

Because education has been one of the main targets of the rebels, enrollment is down and dropout rates have soared because parents fear their children will be abducted. Most parents have sent their boys to India or to the cities for schooling and in many schools there are only girls left. Nepal's peacetime dropout rate of 70 percent of children below 10 years is now estimated to be much higher.

"I can't tell you how bad things are in the districts it makes you want to weep," says a human rights activist here, "in many villages there are just no young boys and very few girls left."

Even in Nepalganj, school disruptions have meant that hundreds of children cross the border to Rupedia every morning to go to schools that have mushroomed there to cater to Nepali children.

A border policeman sees the children go back and forth and shakes his head: "What can they do, schools here are forced to close half the time." Kusendra Mahato of the Karnali Integrated Rural Development Project says there has been a flight of school children from the villages in Kalikot and Jumla in the past months.

The conflict threatens to erase the dramatic gains made in literacy rates in the past 30 years. School enrollment of children from grades 1-10 should have reached nearly six million last year from just two million in 1981. It is clear the figure this year will be much lower but no one has an estimate of how much.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)