Educating girls to break cycle of poverty

Dereje Wordofa during Holi with children at SOS Children's Village, Kavre. Photos: SOS CHILDREN'S VILLAGE NEPAL

Dereje Wordofa, President of SOS Children’s Villages International visited Nepal earlier this month. He also met with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to discuss children’s rights. Excerpts from an interview.

Nepali Times: Can you tell us the purpose of your visit?

Dereje Wordofa: The purpose of my visit is to engage, learn and understand the child protection and care work we do in Nepal. I am also here to celebrate the work of SOS Children's Villages Nepal over the last five decades in caring for children who do not have parental care or are at risk of losing it.

Finally, I am also here to listen to the stories of success, challenges and dilemmas not only from the care professionals, care practitioners, management, young people and the families, but also from the main stakeholders particularly from the government at the highest level. The purpose of my visit is multifold and I am happy to be in this remarkably diverse and gorgeous country with spectacular history and its people.

Read also: Sisterhoods empowering education in Nepal

Dr Dereje
Dereje Wordofa, President of SOS Children’s Villages International.

SOS Children’s Villages Nepal started in the late 1960s, how has the focus changed over time?

Since its inception, SOS Children’s Villages Nepal has followed our foundational purpose of being on the side of children who have lost or are at risk of losing parental care. Today and in the future we will continue to work for them – that hasn’t changed. 

By “children and young people without parental care,” we mean those who are temporarily or permanently growing up without the care of their families, children in residential care, in foster care, children who are living on the street. By “those at risk of losing parental care,” we mean children and young people in families that are struggling to stay together and where parents are having difficulty providing the care, stability and bond their children need.

However, our work evolves in response to the specific issues this group faces, and, as it happens in society, our understanding of child and youth development evolves over time. In recent years, for example, we have expanded our work to include “young people” (ages 15-24) because we have learned how important it is for this age group to have someone by their side as they transition into an independent life.

In Nepal, SOS Children's Villages has expanded its range of alternative care solutions for children and young people through its various programmes. Through our community based programmes, we are working to prevent family break down. When necessary, we provide suitable alternative care placement for those that cannot stay with their families. In that case, we provide family-like care and small group homes for children and young people when other solutions are not in their best interest.  We run training centres to equip   young people with employable skills and also build their entrepreneurial spirit.

Read also: Mixed picture for Nepal’s children

Dr Dereje with PM
Wordofa with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

Nepal saw some dramatic improvement in girl child enrollment in schools but recently the progress seems to have stalled. What may be the reasons behind this?

Girls’ education is very important for families and society.  Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic had a deterring effect on education everywhere. For instance, a report by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics shows that the closure of schools due to Covid-19 lockdowns has put an estimated 4.5 million girls in Nepal at risk of not completing their education. This is an unfortunate setback to the earlier progress. In a crisis like Covid-19 and climate change combined, girls are the first to be removed from school and the last to return. 

Due to the consequences of interwoven crises, more families have fallen into poverty and financial hardships. The deprivation is forcing girls to drop out of school and pushing girls into early marriage, exacerbating child labor, rapidly worsening teenage pregnancies and aggravating already existing gender inequalities. 

How do we work to improve this situation? Overall, we all need to renew our commitment to implement the Sustainable Development Goals set up through the United Nations that are aimed at poverty eradication. For example, we are working with families in the community, building their resilience to disruptions to their livelihood, by building stable income streams, and encouraging savings, improving access to credit when needed, can help families to build safety nets. Of course, education systems also have to be adaptable to the effects of the climate crisis. We should proactively advocate for girls' education. At the same time, an enabling policy environment is very important.

Read also: Educating girls for climate action

Dr Dereje with children

How can we ensure adolescent girls and boys have better access to reproductive health services?

Adolescents and young people should be empowered to make informed choices about their body and life. Young people must be able to explore their self, body and sexuality. Most often, they do not get the information and support they need to navigate themselves.  Families usually avoid, for lack of awareness, conversations on sexuality, specifically with children. 

Taboos in society add to the complexities of talking about romantic relationships, sexuality or sexual health. Yet, no matter how obvious or difficult it may seem, we must feel comfortable talking about sex and the body in general.  For instance, a child’s first menstrual cycle is often the catalyst for a conversation. Are our caregivers equipped to begin talking about puberty or/and sexual health? Can they provide children with clear, and helpful information? Do the schools they attend provide them with sex education? What is the knowledge of our young boys and girls on safe sexual practices, contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/ AIDS? That is why I am convinced that the relevant knowledge will and can empower young people to be confident to make informed choices about their future. 

Children and young people must protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and abuse. Care practitioners and parents need to have the competence to openly communicate about reproductive and sexual health in the best interest of the children and young people.

Read also: Sisterhood of students

Dr Dereje NT
Wordofa with a child at SOS Children's Village, Sanothimi.

Why is it important to focus on girl child’s education?

Around the world, educated girls and young women marry at a later age, they have informed family planning decisions that lead to fewer children. Moreover, their children tend to get good nutrition, be healthier, and they prioritize schooling. They make important choices for themselves and their family.  So, educating girls can break cycles of poverty, increase productivity and has the power to improve the wellbeing of a family. Increasing women’s and girls’ educational attainment is at the core of the sustainable development agenda because it contributes to more inclusive economic growth for societies as a whole. 

It goes without saying that investing in girls’ education transforms communities, countries and the entire world. It contributes to more stable, resilient societies that give all individuals – including boys and men – the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Girls earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families and more.

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