From seen, to heard, to real influence

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This article is based on reports and conversations following Rita Tisdall’s recent visit to Nepal. Rita is CICED’s project coordinator in Nepal, and has just returned from some very labor-intensive weeks in Helambu and Kathmandu.

Before we dive into the impressions of the last three weeks, let’s recall why we are working with the Just Nepal Foundation on a school project in Helambu, north of Kathmandu:

Children in Helambu lack protection, especially the poorest and marginalized. The children are trafficked, often under the guise of offering education at cheap boarding schools in Kathmandu, or smuggled to India as sex workers and organ donors. Schools in the area lack pedagogical practices that deliver quality education.

Despite legislation on parental influence via school boards, the democratic influence is fairly shaky. Communities are stuck in centuries of caste-based discrimination and exclusion. More than 80% of all school teachers are still recruited from high-caste groups. Basically, we’re talking about bringing groups that have traditionally been alienated from each other closer together for the sake of the child.

The project started in January 2021, shortly before the area was shut down for the second time due to the covid pandemic. In June of that year, the area experienced the worst monsoon ever. Floods and landslides killed 25 people and caused massive damage to homes, schools and infrastructure. The disaster left the physical landscape of the project area completely altered in many places. Not only had some of the project workers lost their homes and land, they now had to operate in terrain that was far more difficult and dangerous to navigate than what was known at the start of the project.


“We work from the premise that communities and schools share common challenges, but also that each place has its own unique social narrative that reveals differences in resources and challenges. So we started with a mapping method called “SEE IT” and collected information from all communities and their 34 schools,” says Rita.

Prior to the implementation of SEE IT, 8 new field workers participated in extensive workshops focusing on how to engage in a respectful relationship with people in local communities as a stranger and perhaps a high caste person. It’s about humility, restraint and patience. They need to show that they arrive to listen, watch and learn before coming up with good ideas.

SEE IT revealed big differences between communities. Unprecedented hardships and challenges were documented. Schools and communities were categorized according to the extent of their needs, and subsequent support was tailored to local conditions.

The following four areas were identified as focus areas after the completion of “SEE IT”:

  1. Families with children. A new phenomenon in Nepal, where parents leave their eldest child to take care of younger siblings while parents seek work in India or the Middle East.
  2. Children with visible disabilities. 60 families of children with disabilities who had never received any kind of disability support were registered. Some of the children lived in extreme deprivation. 60% of all disabilities in Nepal are preventable as they are poverty-related. It is also estimated that around 250 children and their parents in the area have ‘hidden disabilities’ due to maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy. They live in specific settlements in the catchment area of four schools. Often teachers are also addicted to alcohol. As CICED’s partner JUST Nepal Foundation has no special knowledge of disability, a collaboration with the Nepalese Resource Center for Rehabilitation and Development (RCRD) was initiated to strengthen local services for children with disabilities.
  3. School dropout rates among youth are far higher than predicted, leaving children extremely vulnerable to trafficking.
  4. Children/families in acute need – e.g. living in dangerous housing situations (climate-related), lacking medication, consuming poison, children abandoned or at high risk of being trafficked.

So what is the status of these four areas? What observations did you bring home with you?

“If we take families with children and children in acute need, there is good news. With the Anticipatory Action project, we moved children and families from the most vulnerable positions . And the child-led families had adults attached, financial help or even moved to families who then get a little extra money for having the children in their household too. The money comes mainly from the ’emergency fund’, which is fed with funds from various private contributions.” Part of these private contributions are collected through Nepali sponsorships and one of the other Danish organizations ATOS (Alternatives to Separation, ed.), which is also involved in Helambu.

“We don’t have new figures on whether there are more or fewer child-led families, but it’s hard to see signs that the number is decreasing,” Rita continues. “There have been calls to create a ‘transit house’ for children without parents, but the clues are scary. Once there is an institution, it becomes the solution. And we don’t want that. That’s why a ‘transitional family’ scheme is being worked on until more permanent solutions are found. We think that such families will need a monthly support of around 3,000 rupees (approx. 155 kr., ed.)

There are other good observations. No child marriages have been detected in the last few years. And child trafficking has also stopped. But a new phenomenon has emerged, says Rita. There are two villages where there are no young women left. They have left their husbands and children and gone to the Gulf States to work. No one expects them to ever come back. A very large proportion of men resort to the bottle. New challenges arise for the others on the palette for future collaboration in Helambu.

Drinking, dropping out and big plans

Alcohol abuse is a strong color on the palette. Three villages in Helambu are particularly hard hit. It’s hard to establish conversation and cooperation with addicts. There is a lack of experience with appropriate methods to combat the abuse, but with support from RCRD, something has been set in motion.

“Our partner JNF has started delivering alcohol abuse training to health workers in the seven wards in Helambu . There is massive ignorance about the side effects of alcohol,” Rita emphasizes. “No one seems to know how alcohol damages the fetus during pregnancy and how such alcohol damage hampers the child for the rest of its life and only gets worse as the years go by. Therefore, teachers must also be trained in how to detect and deal with children and young people with ‘hidden’ disabilities caused by the mother’s – and father’s – alcohol abuse.”

The large amounts of hard liquor may also be one of the sources of a surprisingly high dropout rate after 6th-7th grade, when the emotional and cognitive consequences of alcohol consumption during pregnancy become too much of a burden on children’s ability to keep up in school. In any case, dropout is massive in alcohol-dominated areas.

Now, there can be other reasons for dropping out after completing primary school. For many boys in particular, taking a day job is either necessary or attractive. Necessary because the family lacks the money. And if it’s not strictly necessary, it’s tempting to put a little money in your hands. Perhaps it could lead to the purchase of a small motorcycle, which in turn opens up opportunities for more work. Preferably in Kathmandu.

This is why Helambu Mayor Nima Gyalen Hyolmo is also very keen to establish some technical and vocational training in the area. This could be one of the things that would encourage young people to stay in Helambu, he believes. The area certainly needs technicians and craftsmen of various kinds, but experience shows that technical and vocational education is difficult and very expensive to make work properly.

The mayor is ambitious on behalf of his municipality. There is a very good collaboration between the municipality, JNF and CICED, and in front of us we have the mayor’s wish for a 10-year plan for better school and education in Helambu. As is sometimes the case with political processes, things can only move too slowly. With experience from the SEE IT effort and the ongoing school project, two previous projects focusing on youth in Helambu and the two most recent community-led climate adaptation efforts, JNF and CICED have a reasonably good knowledge of Helambu. And school development is part of our DNA.

All parties have recognized and experienced the power of locally led efforts. So we look forward to working together. To be continued in due course.

Temporary school building in Helambu after the great earthquake of 2015
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