Age no bar to go to school

Meet the Nepali women fulfilling their lifelong dreams to get an education

Formal education in schools and universities became available to ordinary Nepalis only 70 years ago. But even then women were not encouraged to get an education. 

The 1971 Education Plan laid out a strategy to raise literacy levels, and encouraged girls’ enrollment in schools. Over the decades, female teachers were added to school faculties, girls were given scholarships and free basic education and women’s rights were enshrined in the Constitution.

age no bar

The progress is undeniable: Nepal now boasts near-equal enrollment rates for both boys and girls at primary level. However, dropout rates for young women is still high in secondary and higher education.

The female literacy rate is 69.4% compared to 83.6% for males. Socio-cultural norms, poverty, child marriage and lack of proper sanitation facilities in schools are factors hindering equal access to education.

age no bar

But in a case of better late than never, older women who were denied education when young are enrolling in formal education.

“We have studied that men and women are wheels of the same chariot. How can the chariot move forward when one wheel is well oiled and the other is not,” asks Anjana Maharjan, Principal of Shradha Mahila Alternative Secondary School in Swayambhu that offers classes from Grade 1 through 10 for girls 12 years and above.

Age no bar

“When a man is educated, the house prospers, whereas when a woman is educated, the family prospers. When a family is capable, the village becomes capable. When a village becomes capable, the country develops,” she adds.

But the road back to the classroom is not always smooth. Household chores for women often leave little time for studies. The social stigma of starting school later in life or the fear of being judged can be deterrents for some. Many lack of support from their families, and have to lie about going to school. 

age no bar

“There are students here who come here while telling their family that they are going to work,” says Prabha Chalise, Principal at Prerana Mahila Secondary School in Satdobato that provides classes for young women 14 years and older. 

Some women stay on after class to finish their assignments and leave their books in school so that no one back home finds out. 

“Society and family should encourage women, they must inspire them and push them to get an education, not judge them for it,” says Chalise.

Meet some of the women achieving their lifelong dream of attending school:

Indra Kumari Ale, 71

Indra Kumari Ale

Every morning, Indra Kumari Ale takes a half an hour walk from her home in Kusunti to Prerana Mahila Secondary School in Satdobato, carrying a blue and purple backpack. Once inside the brown gates, she makes her way to the second floor and takes her place inside the classroom.

Growing up in Syangja, Ale got basic education, but her father thought girls did not need education and married her off at the age of 18. Her husband was in the Indian army, and Ale took care of her in-laws while he was away serving. 

For 25 years, the two maintained a long-distance relationship and her husband would only be home during holidays. Because she herself could not go to school, Ale made sure all her children did. Her two older daughters were married off after completing high school, and her youngest daughter has completed medical school.   

During all the time she was home looking after the family, Ale yearned to go to school but that dream never materialised until 2015 when her youngest daughter, convinced her to join the school for women.  

She started in Grade 1, and excelled in studies, got the highest scores in class skipped grades. “It was easy in the lower classes, even till class 7/8, but it is more difficult now more so because of my age, my eyes and ears have started to fail,” she says. 

Last year, Ale sat for her SEE exams, which she says was “fun”, giving the test with other students who were her grandchildren’s age. 

“The students as well as the teachers there showed me love and respect as I was sitting for exams at my age. I did not think I would pass, but I did,” she says. 

Until then not many outside Ale’s family knew she was going to school. When the results were announced, people from her locality came to know that she had passed the SEE exams, and they came together to honour her for her achievement. 

Now in Grade 11, she is proud of her decision to go to school. “In the past when my neighbours asked where I was going carrying a backpack, I would say I’m going for a walk,” says Ale. “These days everyone in my community knows I go to school and they love and respect me for continuing my education.”

Education has not only given Ale recognition in her family and society but has also helped her become more independent. “From reading signboards to hailing buses, I can do all that by myself now,” she says. “Now, I understand English even if I can’t speak it properly yet, I did not think I’d be able to do all this at this age.”

Prem Kumari Rajkoti Magar, 55

Prem Kumari Rajkoti Magar
Prem Kumari Rajkoti Magar, 55

In the mountains of Palpa, Prem Kumari Rajkoti Magar was known for her dulcet voice and an interest in singing. Villagers would invite her to perform in rodhi, dohori and other programs. She happily obliged.

Over the years, she published two albums and played small roles in Nepali tele serials but she was troubled by the fact that she did not know how to read or write.

She came to Kathmandu 25 years ago, where her husband landed a job. She also looked for jobs in offices, but they said the most she was capable of was cleaning and mopping floors. 

“I faced a lot of humiliation because I could not read or write,” recalls Magar. Once, while auditioning for a role in a Nepali movie, she was handed her lines. A younger woman read them out for her so she could memorise them, but not before remarking, “Why would a person who cannot even read the lines apply?”  

She was embarrassed, and the comment damaged her confidence. She fumbled through the audition and was not surprised when she did not get the role.

“Even when singing, I kept thinking that if I knew how to read, I wouldn’t have to struggle to memorise all the words, I could even write my own songs,” says Magar. “All of these life experiences taught me the importance of education.”

Magar always wanted to study but growing up she never had the chance to because “education was never a priority in the village” and for her parents. Once she was married, she was too busy taking care of the household. 

Magar had given up on ever learning to read when she learnt of Shraddha Mahila Alternative Secondary School in Swayambhu, and made up her mind to enroll. Her husband and sons supported her decision, and she got enrolled in Grade 1. 

“I did not feel embarrassed to study with students who were younger than me, plus there were others who were similar to me in age and older learning their alphabets too,” she says. 

For nearly two years, she has been taking care of household chores and rushing to school every morning.  This year she had to take two months off from school when her daughter-in-law gave birth but is now back in class.

Now in Grade 2, Magar diligently attends school from 11am to 3pm every weekday and says she can now confidently sign her name in both English and Nepali, and use her mobile phone. She wants to study as long as she is healthy and can move around.

“I am happy that I get to study at this age,” says Magar. “Women should study so that they can be financially and socially independent. When they are educated they will know the ways of the world, they won't get cheated, they can maintain their privacy and more importantly they can voice their opinion.”

Shobha Thapa, 60

Shobha Thapa
Shobha Thapa, 60

When she was young, Shobha Thapa learned to recognise the Nepali alphabets by peeking and eavesdropping on her siblings' lessons. She never got to go to school, and once married got too busy raising children. But she made sure her children would get the best education and enrolled them in English medium schools.

“The teachers would talk to me in English,” recalls Thapa. “I couldn’t understand anything but I was too embarrassed to admit it or ask what they meant.”

At home, she would often feel excluded when people said she would not understand the issue because she was uneducated. “There are simply too many humiliations for me to recount now. But what they all taught me was that education is important,” says Thapa.

She could not muster up the courage to tell her husband about her desire to go to school. But one day he himself brought home a newspaper featuring a story of Prerana Mahila Secondary School. She told him she wanted to enroll, and he agreed. 

Her youngest son had just come home after graduating from an engineering college, so she asked him to take her to the school for admissions. Thapa finally started school at age 50. 

“I cannot describe the feeling of happiness on that first day,” says Thapa who is now in Grade 11. “I felt that I had already achieved a lot.” Her zeal was so strong she would have her books open when she was cooking or doing laundry. 

Thapa was the top performing student till the pandemic hit. “I did not know how to use a laptop, but managed to take online classes,” says Thapa who was much happier when physical classes resumed. She says she still needs to work on her English. 

After passing her SEE exams last year, she has felt a shift in people’s attitude towards her. “People who called me hariyo kakro (why eat green cucumbers when it’s time to die) now show respect and ask me for help,” she says. 

Thapa wants to continue in her path and is proud of what she has achieved. She doesn’t hesitate to tell everyone that she is in school or encourage other women to start studying. She adds, “Education opens up the world. It is what makes us human beings and it is especially important for women because she needs to be strong to face the world.”

Surya Kumari Shrestha, 67

Surya Kumari Shrestha

As a child, Surya Kumari Shrestha never went to school even though there was one in her village. She did attend kindergarten, writing on slates with chalk. But she never continued in school.

Later when her contemporaries went on to hold jobs and some worked as teachers, she regretted not studying, and spent most of her life thinking ‘what if’.

20 years ago, she moved to Kathmandu. In her new home, there was a telephone that her family members used often. “Everyone dialed different numbers to talk to different people and I wondered how they did that,” remembers Shrestha. “I had no idea how it worked.”

Today, she comfortably uses her mobile and talks to her daughters and video calls her son in Japan. “I dial the numbers myself and call whoever I want to call,” she says. “Maybe I cannot do everything, but I can do more now than when I did not go to school.”

A student of Grade 8 at Shraddha Mahila Alternative Secondary School, for Shrestha the decision to join the school was not just to study but also for companionship. 

With her son abroad and her daughters married, Shrestha lives alone with her dog Pinki. “If I don’t come to school, I don’t have anyone to talk to. Here I have friends and I get to learn new things,” she says. 

Her children, relatives and neighbours all know that she is attending school and support her decision. On days when she is at home, her neighbours ask why she is missing class. 

Education has given her the confidence to face the world as a single woman. Recently when she was asked for her thumbprints on a document, she replied that she could sign her own name. 

Says Shrestha, “I want to sit for SEE exams and then go to college. Education has brought about many positive changes in my life.”

Nirmala Chhetri, 56

Nirmala Chhetri
Nirmala Chhetri, 56

Nirmala Chhetri is a social activist and an entrepreneur. Over the years, she worked at various hotels, opened and operated a women’s cooperative, ran her own tailoring business and is now with the Godavari Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

On the outside, her life looked good, but Chhetri secretly yearned to continue her education.

After her high school exams, she had learned to type. Her accuracy and speed brought in an offer for a government job, but she had to turn it because her family’s disapproval. 

In 1985, she passed her SLC exams and joined Namuna Machhindra College for her IA, but she had to put her studies on hold and get married. Her home life took precedence as she brought up her children.

Because she could not study to her heart’s content, she made sure all three of her children, especially her daughter went to school. Two of her children are now in Australia and her son works with Nepal Airlines.

“I always wanted to continue my studies,” says Chhetri. “But when I joined the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the men there were much more educated than me. This made me feel a bit inferior, but it also made me more determined.” 

She joined Prerana Mahila Secondary School in Grade 11 and plans to continue on to do a bachelor’s in law. 

“I feel happy. I feel proud of myself and have regained my confidence,” says Chhetri. “I now think I can do much more in life.”

Chhetri's family is fully supportive, and with her children all grown up, she feels this is the time to invest in her own personal growth.  

“We women have reached this point by sacrificing a lot, so our family and children had opportunities,” says Chhetri. “Why should we give up opportunities at this point in our lives too? Women are now free, we should make the most of it.”

Sahina Shrestha


Sahina Shrestha is a journalist interested in digital storytelling, product management, and audience development and engagement. She covers culture, heritage, and social justice. She has a Masters in Journalism from New York University.