Nepali Times
Guest Column
Missing children


Each year, thousands of young Nepalis open the newspaper to find themselves among the missing. This year, 69 percent scanned the SLC results in vain. Sometimes the percentage is lower, but never by much.

After a lifetime of hearing their teachers repeat the mantra that youth are "the future of Nepal" and "the pillars of the nation", the vast majority of youth are officially declared to be failures. The pillars of the nation are pronounced too weak to sustain a further load.

On paper, Nepal has made remarkable progress in education. There are relatively few people under 30 who have never spent time in a classroom, and almost no one without a family member who has experienced school. By 1998, 78 percent of boys and 55 percent of girls were enrolled in primary school. Girls and disadvantaged youth are attending in record numbers, for at least a short time.

But since nations are comprised of human beings, and not of statistics, we need to ask another question: at the end of the day, what is the "take home lesson"? What is the ultimate message, for most people, of their years in school?

Disturbingly, the one experience shared by a majority of the people in today's Nepal is the bleak, embittering experience of being tagged, at some point, as failures. There are many points at which this happens, both before and after the SLC, but it's particularly poignant at the age of 17 or so, when dreams are all of adventure and a brilliant future along uncharted paths. At the age when the energies of youth are boiling with the power to move mountains, the school system of Nepal shuts the lid on further education.

There is something about the SLC results that bears a remarkable resemblance to the caste system-not necessarily in the surnames of the Chosen Ones, but in the general outline. A small, select group perches at the top, while a large group of supposed blockheads is relegated to the sidelines, to do with themselves as they will.

In traditional societies such as the Nepal of several decades ago, the pitfalls of the teen years were sidestepped and teen energy was capitalised on by giving young people a growing voice in village affairs as they matured. But today in Nepal, the government labels its young people as failures, and tells them to run along home. What, precisely, these thousands of teenagers are supposed to do with themselves between now and a year later, when they will be permitted to attempt the SLC again, is not something that many people seem to have given much thought. Except, of course, the Maoists.

This is a "war" run by school dropouts and SLC failures for whom mark sheets full of 20s and 30s came before the .303s.

Lack of hope may make a person desperate and gullible, but the lack of a certificate doesn't make a person incompetent. The youth in the jungles are tragically wrong in believing that equality can sprout in fields of blood and fear. But their actions are ironic proof that strategic thinking, the ability to organise, and the energy to attempt to make a difference-however misguided-are far from lacking in Nepal.

Now take a minute to imagine a different system. What would be lost by permitting the majority of Nepal's high school students to continue to some form of college? What would happen if there were community colleges that offered both vocational training and the dignity of a college degree? What could be gained by creating a genuine and reachable light, instead of a mirage, at the end of education's tunnel?

A drastically overhauled system in which higher education was essentially open to all would, at the very least, keep the dream of a brighter, more dignified future from going missing in action. And it would teach a very different lesson: that each person is capable of learning, and worthy of respect.

(Sally Acharya is an American journalist who has lived and worked in Kathmandu. Hom Raj Acharya is a graduate student in sociology at the American University, and specialises in education.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)