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Gender can significantly influence trends in literacy and educational attainment. The reasons behind these trends can range from economic status to social power structures and socially constructed gender norms in society. A country study on Nepal’s out-of-school children identified seven barriers to education – poverty, social exclusion linked to caste and ethnicity, disability, migration, child labour and trafficking, social norms and gender biases, supply constraints such as school infrastructure and staffing, language, emergencies and civil strife, governance, and financing bottlenecks.
This article focuses on some of these indicators – poverty, social exclusion, disability, social norms, and gender biases – to illustrate gendered differences in primary and secondary education in the Koshi basin. The analysis is based on the available data in the Koshi Basin Gender Portal, Nepal’s most recent census (2011), and a review of relevant literature.
Over the past 70 years, in each decadal census year, Nepal’s national literacy rate has increased by 10.64%, with male literacy rate increasing by 11.27% and female literacy rate by 8.09%. Although literacy rates have increased, students continue to drop out 1 of school. In 2012/13, the dropout rate of students at primary level (grades 1-5) was 5.2%. Recent figures show a decrease in primary level dropout rates, which currently stands at 3.6% According to the Government of Nepal’s Flash Report (2011-12), the dropout rate for lower secondary level decreased from 6.5% to 4.4% and from 6.9% to 3.7% for the secondary level 2.
There are numerous contextual reasons for the dropouts, which can be more of a process than a single occurrence, with multiple interconnected components rather than just one proximate cause. Poverty, economic hardship, socio-economic status and geographical barriers could be the reasons behind the remarkably high dropouts among Dalits and marginalized students. The data (Table 1) shows differential dropout rates for male and female students in different levels of education. Socio-cultural factors relate to how girls and boys are treated and valued in the society and how people behave in social relations and networks and social classes. Therefore, multiple factors interplaying with poverty could pull girls out from schools in places where gender inequality already persists, like in Nepal. However, somewhat similar rates of male students dropping out of schools in Nepal is attributed to the increased demand for agriculture labour due to higher male outmigration. The high level of dropout in secondary level might be due to poverty as parents from the lower economic background mobilize their children in economic activities to support their families.
The literacy rate of the Koshi basin districts (64.5%) is slightly lower than the overall literacy rate of the country (65.9%). However, the basin has a higher female literary rate (55.9%), compared to the national rate (44%), but this is still significantly lower than the male literary rate (71.6%) and national rate (73.6%). The female population (51.4%) is also higher than male population (48.6%) in the basin area. However, the percentage of females currently not going to school (16.8%) is higher than the percentage of males currently not going to school (13.1%).
The Koshi basin has a high dropout rate (6.5%) compared to the national rate (5.4%). 20 of the 27 districts in the basin have a higher dropout rate, with the exception of urban centres such as Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.
The economic status of the family, early marriage, lack of access to schools, and parents’ reluctance to invest in higher education are some of the constraints young girls face in the Terai region of Nepal, which accounts for 8 of the 27 districts in the basin. Districts such as Rautahat, Sarlahi, Mahottari, Siraha, Dhanusha and Bara – all in the Terai region, have low literacy rates compared to other districts.
Around 25% of Nepal’s population live below the absolute poverty line. In the Koshi basin, Kailali district has the highest number of people living below the poverty line, followed by Saptari, Rautahat, Siraha, and Bara.
The data reveals clear linkages between poverty and literacy rate, out-of-school children and population not going to school. Rautahat, for example, is the poorest district in Nepal and which also has the lowest literacy rate, highest OSC and the highest percentage of girls not going to school among districts in the basin. These four districts also have the lowest literacy rate and the highest rate of poverty rates in the basin. In addition to these districts, Sarlahi, Mahottari and Dhanusha also have a high percentage of out-of-school children compared to other districts in the basin.
Children from ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial, or other minority groups are less likely to enrol in school, more likely to repeat a grade, and more likely to dropout than children from majority groups. Muslims are the major religious group in two of the poorest districts in the basin, Rautahat, and Bara. Muslims have often been excluded from social, economic, educational, and political institutions, which is reflected in their low literacy, high poverty rate and low representation in civil service, police, military, and other institutions and decision-making bodies. Furthermore, heavy domestic workload on women, social pressure for early marriages, and cultural demands for girls to be at home during religious ceremonies are some of the other barriers to the education of girls among the Yadav community.
According to the 2011 Census, 30.6% of children with special needs in Nepal are currently out of school. The Koshi basin districts have a significant population of children with various types of disabilities and special needs such as blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, speech impairment, and intellectual disabilities. The census data (2011) shows a higher rate of disability among men (4.6%) than women (3%) and this too may reflect gender discrimination that reduces the survival chances of girls and women with disabilities, and limited identification of those disabilities among these groups. Women with disabilities are also more likely to be deprived of education than men. Furthermore, due to Nepal’s poor social security system, people with disabilities receive limited social protection. Even the services that are available are often confined to urban centres leaving rural populations with little or no help in dealing with special needs, treatment and rehabilitation, and rural women with a greater burden of caregiving for family members with special needs.
Division of labour in household and agricultural work, control over household income, decision-making positions in society and community institutions, and even participation in formulating national policies and plans are different for men and women. These gendered roles affect the rights, responsibilities, opportunities, and capabilities, including access to and treatment in school. The traditional roles and expectations for girls and women also shape their own perceptions regarding their roles in society, households, decision-making, and mobility.
Furthermore, there is still a prevalent cultural belief in many areas of Nepal that girls’ education is less important than of boys. While the average mean age of marriage of females in Koshi basin is 20.8, for males it is 23.8. Early marriage can be considered both the cause and consequence of school dropouts. Girls who have dropped out of primary education or failed to make the transition to secondary schooling are more vulnerable to the social, cultural, and economic forces that perpetuate early marriage.
This case study shows that dropout and out-of-school rates in Nepal are high, especially among young women and girls, mainly in poor districts, which includes the Koshi basin districts. Many factors that result in dropouts and out-of-school children, such as poverty, disabilities, social norms, and practices that discriminate girls and women, and social structures that perpetuate this discrimination, are still widespread in many districts.
To address the discriminatory social norms and structural barriers that perpetuate gender and social inequality, there is a need to better understand and analyse the driving forces behind dropouts from a gender and social inclusion perspective. Fundamental changes in social norms and values attached to education in general and girl children in particular at the family and community level, along with policies and programmes at the national level that consider the rights and needs of girl children, can contribute to national efforts to achieve the Agenda 2030 goal of decreasing school dropouts through access to quality education. This is crucial for gender empowerment and for equal participation of women in all spheres of society.
1 Drop out is defined as any student who leaves school for any reason before graduation or completion of a programme of studies without transferring to another elementary or secondary school (Bonneau 2006; Devkota & Bagale 2015)
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