Saturday, 17 January 2015

Girls and Boys

The project I am working with has the aim of encouraging more girls to attend school and stay at school until they are 16 and to finish their education.  Although many girls start school, in rural areas they frequently drop out and leave before taking their School Leaving Certificate. If a family can afford it, boys are often sent to private schools whilst the girls go to the local government schools, which frequently do not have a good reputation for high achievement.

Women and girls washing clothes in the river
Nepal is a very patriarchal society.  A boy child is prized, honoured and cherished in many traditional families, whilst the girls are expected to work hard in the home or on the land. Near where I live I see boys playing outside; football, cricket, marbles or even riding a bike – but rarely do I see girls playing.  Many girls are given household chores like cleaning, washing, fetching water or looking after siblings, and these may often leave little time for play or for doing homework.  

In many of the classrooms I visit the girls are much less confident and less assertive than the boys.  Frequently boys and girls sit on opposite sides of the classroom, which makes it very obvious when there is a difference.  

Girls revising for an exam the next day - before going home!
The boys often dominate, loudly calling out answers to the teacher’s questions, reading aloud and taking part in lessons and even demanding that their work be marked before the girls work.  In some lessons I have seen, the teacher talks directly to the boys or asks the boys questions before or rather than the girls.  

After one lesson when I talked about this with the teacher, he told me “The girls would not want to answer anyway, so there is no need to ask them!”  How hard to change these cultural attitudes! Girls want an education and, given the right opportunities, work hard to succeed at school.

Child marriage, although officially illegal in Nepal, still sometimes takes place. The girl may have no say in this, it will have been arranged by her father or parents, sometimes to a man much older than her.  Some poor families say they just cannot afford to keep a daughter at home any longer. At marriage a girl become the possession of her husband and his family.  She must move from her own family home into his, and will be expected to work very hard there at household chores and cooking.  There will be no time to continue her education, no matter how good a student she was. 
Girls, bright and enthusiastic to be at school.
This difference shows in all aspects of society. When walking along pavements in Kathmandu (we don’t have pavements in Besisahar where I live!), if a group of men are walking towards a woman, the expectation is that the woman will step off the pavement into the road to get out of their way.  The traffic in Kathmandu is such that I am not prepared to do this, so I have rebelled against it and just stand still, making the men move around me, which they often look puzzled or cross about.  Recently, I was being served in an office near my flat when two young men walked in.  The female office worker immediately put my forms aside and served the two men before returning to finish serving me!  Fortunately I don’t have a good enough command of Nepali to make a fuss about this – as I would have wanted to!!

The government is committed to encouraging more women to be represented in decision-making roles, both at grass-roots and higher political levels, but this needs to go alongside an increase in women’s confidence to speak out and be heard.  One woman I met recently told me that although she is a member of the School Management Committee, she is rarely able to give her views because men, who talk and are not prepared to listen, dominate the S.M.C. Women must be confident to make their voices heard and men must be more prepared to listen.

Big and Little Sisters working together
These attitudes are changing, especially amongst better-educated adults, but in the rural villages where I work and many adults themselves have not had education, many girls are still treated as if they have no voice.  If all girls completed their education I am sure this would help to change this culture.
This is what the Sisters for Sisters' project is all about!

The situation was summed up very well by one of the Headteachers I work with said "Girls must complete their education so that they become more confident and not down-trodden"

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The old trekking route

In an old trekking book, circa 1980, that I bought in a charity shop before I came to Nepal, it talks about the route up the valley to Besisahar from Dumre, which had to be walked as part of the Annapurna Circuit, before the road to Besisahar was built.  This trail was across the river, coming up the opposite side of the valley from the present road. Nowadays most trekkers catch a bus at least as far as Besisahar and often even further up the valley, but in those days there was an extra 50 kilometres to walk just to reach Besisahar.

As it was a beautiful clear Saturday with warm sunshine despite being January, I set out to try to follow the trail down the valley as far as time would allow in a day.  I hoped it still existed and was good to walk. I left Besisahar via a footbridge across the river that I know, and turned right instead of the usual left. 

There was a good track to follow, that undulated up and down the side valleys and over small ridges, always well above the river, the Marsyandi Nadi, a beautiful aquamarine colour from the glacier water it contains. 

I crossed a couple of pretty streams on stepping-stones and once over a small suspension footbridge.  In places there had been small landslips and the old trail had disappeared, but there was a makeshift path over the rough earth, rocks and debris. This old route is obviously still well used by local people.

Washing hanging like flags in front of this small house.

In places the path went through small settlements, where people smiled and children shouted “Namaste!” or “Hello” and waved.  Men and women of all ages, sitting outside their houses in the sunshine were very curious about me.  “Where was I going?” 
'Where had I come from?” 
“Eklai?” (Was I alone?) 
Even one group of ‘old men’ sitting in the sun, after several similar questions enquired how old I was, and were amused (as I was) to find I was older than most of them! 

On display was the everyday life of simple rural people. The woman doing the family washing at the communal tap, children playing cricket with an old piece of wood for a bat and a round stone for the ball, men ploughing terraces with pairs of buffalo, women collecting fodder for their animals, young girls fetching firewood in their dokkos (cone-shaped baskets carried on their back by a head strap) others carrying dokkos full of manure for the fields.
Dokko shaped piles of manure dotted across the field.

Young women fetching firewood.

Several pairs of men were carrying very long bamboo poles along the track, which were obviously heavy as they had to take frequent rests.  I asked if I could feel the weight – they were heavy.  They invited me to sit down with them and have a rest too.  My language skills were not up to asking them what they were going to do with these poles, although I was curious.
How long? How heavy?  What's it for?

Sometimes the path led through forest and I listened to the chorus from the birds high in the trees.  Bamboo clumps with tall new shoots stretching up toward the sky, contained flocks of small twittering birds.

Part of the trail was below a steep rocky cliff and I watched a pair of eagles riding the thermals, but they were too high to photograph.  A kingfisher, beautifully bright with turquoise, skimmed up a stream and a family of four small brown squirrels scampered across the path and up into the nearby bush where they squealed to each other.

At intervals I could look back up to the snow-capped Annapurna peaks that towered above the valley, the town of Besisahar on a flat plain nestling in the valley is far below them. 

I finished by crossing the river on the long bridge above where it is damed for hydroelectricity. I know this bridge too, as it is the start of the route to two of the schools I visit. Once back on the road I returned to Besisahar by bus.  

What a great way to spend my day off!