EDUCATION
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Nepal earthquake 2015

Hong Kong helps Nepal: quake wrecked homes but not dreams of education

On his first day in Nepal after deadly earthquakes struck the country, Hong Kong-based John Wood, founder of international education charity Room to Read, finds teenage girls determined to study despite living in tents after their families' homes were destroyed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 10:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 5:40pm

My first full day in Nepal began with a briefing from the Room to Read Nepal team. Over an early breakfast I listened to our plans for the day: “We’re going to visit students in our girls' education programme.  At the school we are visiting, we have 39 girls enrolled in our programme and support them to complete secondary school. Thirty-six of these young women had their houses destroyed in the recent earthquakes.”

This did not sound like a harbinger of a happy day. I debated what a visiting guest should say to the young women who had experienced and survived such trauma. 

Shree Bajrayoginee Secondary School lies in the dusty district of Sankhu, on the distant outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley. As we made the long drive, our team shared with me that the 36 girls whose homes had been destroyed were living in the tent camps that I was now viewing through the car window. Despite this challenge, every one of these girls still shows up for school every day, and has been doing so since the day schools reopened following the twin earthquakes that struck the country this spring.

How, I asked, was this possible? Reema, the director of our girls’ education programme, explained that her team of “social mobilisers” (our term for employed mentors who act as advocates for the girls in the programme) had been supporting these girls from day one - paying daily visits to the tent camps to offer trauma counselling to the girls and their families, while also encouraging them to prepare to return to school. “We want the girls to look forward rather than backward,” said Reema. This was not an easy task for many families, and in many cases it took a series of long conversations. 

Fortunately, the girls on our programme are extremely motivated. Some had even approached the workers who were in charge of the earthquake clean-up, asking them, “Can you find my books in the rubble? Can you locate my school uniform?” Our local team was amazed that the girls never spoke about the loss of their houses, but rather focused their fear on not being able to return to school.

The young women in our programme, ranging from grades eight to 11, gave us a warm greeting with bright smiles upon our arrival. They were dressed in the crisp new school uniforms our team had provided for them. Several girls had recently scored high marks on their national exam, five with high distinction, and were eager to share this news. We talked about the level of education their parents had enjoyed, and learned that not a single one of them had a mother who had finished secondary school. These girls will be part of a new generation of educated Nepali women who will likely one day be mothers and pass on that value of education and literacy to their future children.

One young woman had her head wrapped in a burgundy scarf, but not for religious reasons. She had suffered a head injury when she was trapped in the rubble of her family’s collapsed home for over six hours. Our staff had helped her get to a hospital and paid for her medical and surgical expenses. Despite this physical and emotional trauma, this girl did not want to miss a day of school and was there the day the doors reopened. A Room to Read staff member told me: “She did not wish to think of herself as a victim.” And I could tell that immediately when watching her with her peers - she did not sit on the classroom periphery but  made sure she was right in the middle, surrounded by her friends.

As each girl told me her story, there was little focus on the recent destruction. They instead talked about their dreams - to attend university, to study abroad, to be a nurse. Room to Read’s girls’ education programme places a larger emphasis on life skills education - critical skills girls need in addition to the academics so they are in a better position to navigate life’s challenges and make their own life choices, both personally and professionally.  I was witnessing first-hand how our life skills education component was working as these girls faced the normal challenges of adolescence combined with the challenges of a natural disaster.

When one told me that me that she wanted to be an engineer, I asked, “Is it intimidating to you that most engineers are men?” She replied with a shy smile and a gleam in her eyes, “Yes, that is true, and it is all the more reason I want to prove that girls can do it too.”

I returned to my hotel room optimistic and full of energy, in contrast to the morning's hesitation and apprehension. The young women from the Shree Bajrayoginee Secondary School reminded me of the resilience of the Nepalese people, and their unwavering belief in the power of education to help the nation move forward.

In solidarity with Nepal,

John

PS - I will also be posting to my 379,000 followers on Twitter, and hope you will join us.