Endemic poverty forces many families to put their children to work and recent statistics from the International Labour Organization (ILO) show the country has a sizeable population of child labourers. According to the ILO, over 900,000 girls (nearly a quarter) and almost 690,000 boys (17 per cent) perform work which defines them as labourers.
Some progress is being made. The ILO’s findings suggest that 1 million fewer children are working in Nepal today compared to a decade ago (when there were an estimated 2.6 million child labourers). However, the situation for girls continues to remain worse than for boys. As well as making up the majority of child labourers, girls are also more likely to be involved in hazardous work, exposing them to physical or psychological danger. At least the country has seen a drop in the number of girls loaned as indentured workers to pay off family debts, a practice known as ‘kamlari’ which was outlawed in 2006. This is further discouraged by financial assistance given to poor families by human rights groups.
Education is also seen as key to raise the life chances of the poorest children. To improve the education system, in 2001 the Nepalese government devolved responsibility for primary schooling to local management committees. Village committees are responsible for generating resources locally, setting budgets and hiring teachers for their local schools. As the legal owners of the school facilities, they can also use government funds as they see fit.
Since the change, better school governance has reduced teacher absenteeism, increased donations from the community and improved learning. Enrolment rates in primary education have increased from 60 per cent in 1998 to 92 per cent in 2008. Nepalese society traditionally favours boys over girls, with boys seen as the family’s future earners. However the new school system has improved the parity rates between the genders. It has also lowered drop-out rates for children from poorer ethnic groups. For example, in 2008 only 15 per cent of ‘dalit’ children left school compared to 50 per cent in 2004.
Such improvements in the education sector are seen as a vital component in overcoming the conflict and ethnic tension of Nepal’s past and moving the country towards a more inclusive and open society. And since poorer ethnic groups constitute over two-thirds of the population, the impact of a better education for Nepal’s estimated 7.7 million children (aged 5-17) should be significant.