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How an innovative program in Nepal is getting girls back in school

UDAAN offers adolescent girls like Archana a second chance to study. Photo: Priya Pradhan/CARE

UDAAN offers adolescent girls like Archana a second chance to study. Photo: Priya Pradhan/CARE

“When I had to drop out from school, I felt terrible," Archana Harijan says. "My dreams got shattered. I felt like crying every day.”

In Nepal, Archana is not alone. Her sentiments are echoed by thousands of girls who are forced to drop out of school each year, primarily due to the country’s widespread poverty.

A quarter of Nepali citizens live on less than $1.25 a day, and UNICEF data shows that a child in poverty is 20 percent less likely to complete primary education than a wealthy child.

In Nepal, 18 percent of children between 12 and 14 have not completed primary education.

Among this 18 percent, 49 percent are female.

For Archana’s family, the situation was especially dire since they belong to a minority group called Dalits.

Dalits belong to the lowest stratum in the region’s age-old caste system rooted in Hinduism. This hierarchical and discriminatory social system, passed down through families for centuries, is deeply woven in Nepal’s societal fabric.

As a result, Dalits are considered untouchables by higher caste people, treated as impure, and denied access to public spaces.

Despite legal protections, Dalits are routinely subjected to discrimination and social exclusion by state and non-state power structures. Such a system severely impacts the lives of Dalit people, limiting their access to education, employment, resources, services, and social mobility.

According to the 2021 census, there are 4.5 million Dalits in Nepal, making up 15.5 percent of the total population.

About half of Nepal’s Dalits live below the poverty line.

Archana’s family is no exception. Despite the family’s day-to-day financial struggles, Archana managed to study up to grade four before dropping out of school.

“My family could not afford my education anymore,” Archana says. Paying for books, uniform, bags, and stationary was beyond the family’s capacity.

Left with no choice, Archana tried to embrace what life had to offer and move on. She took sewing classes and was working as a tailor with a relative for around three years.

Archana had to drop out of school after grade four due to poverty. Photo: Hillol Sobhan/CARE

UDAAN opening doors for Archana

Then, one day, something unprecedented happened.

A facilitator from the UDAAN project visited Archana’s home and had a chat with her mother, Kalindra.

UDAAN, which means “flight” or “flying high,” is a specially designed education program offering girls ages 10-14 who have never been to school or dropped out early a second chance to transition into formal public schools.

The facilitator told Kalindra that UDAAN was a free education program and would cover all pertinent expenses, including books, uniforms, and supplies. Moreover, all UDAAN students would get free snacks at school — popularly known as tiffin — such as chapati, vegetable, egg, puffed rice, and pasta.

This program offers an intensive 11-month curriculum that is suited to the individual needs of each student. CARE’s UDAAN initiative played a pivotal role in developing the curriculum and gaining endorsement from the Center of Education and Human Resource Development under Nepal’s Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology.

A few local governments are now in the process of allocating funds and implementing the curriculum.

Aside from bringing girls back to schools, UDAAN aims to prevent child marriage as well. In Nepal, 33 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday, a rate 3.5 times higher than that of boys. One of the best ways to delay marriage is through education. When girls have access to quality education, they are more likely to make informed decisions about their lives.

UNICEF research shows girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 compared to those with secondary or higher education. The World Bank study further substantiates that each year of secondary education decreases the likelihood of marrying before 18 by 5 percent or more. In general, universal secondary education for girls could virtually eliminate child marriage.

Archana’s mother immediately got her daughter registered for the program.

About to take off

Archana joined UDAAN in 2018.

“It was like a dream come true. I was so happy and didn’t know what to do with myself,” Archana says, her face glowing with excitement.

CARE Nepal began the UDAAN model in 2013 in one specific local district in western Nepal. As a UDAAN student, Archana and her friends attend classes six days a week, studying English, Math, Nepali, Science and Social Studies.

“In addition, we had a weekly girls’ assembly (Balika Sabha) and a range of extracurricular activities including sports, dancing, singing, and drama,” Archana says. “We also organized and took part in various social events… such as International Day of the Girl and 16 Days of Activism.”

As part of the program, Archana and her friends also arranged dialogues with parents where they usually discussed issues related to the rights and entitlement of girl children, personal health ,and hygiene. This sort of engagement helped girls develop leadership and life skills.

“With UDAAN, I felt I got my voice back,” Archana says.

Like Archana, UDAAN has helped more than 1,800 young girls to complete primary education through the program. Photo: Priya Pradhan/CARE

From UDAAN to a formal school

Following the 11-month long program, Archana graduated from UDAAN and started formal school in 2019 as a grade seven student at Shree Masinababa Narendrapuri Madhyamik Vidyalaya.

“UDAAN children are performing better compared to the other students,” says Safieullah Khan, principal of Archana’s new school. “They are different and have better leadership skills.

They usually are more proactive when it comes to organizing any event or planning an activity. Apart from academics, they are equally involved in extracurricular activities.”

UDAAN has helped more than 1,800 young girls complete primary education through the program.

“I’m very happy,” says Nanda, Archana’s father, who primarily works as a subsistence farmer. “If a family is poor, girls can still have opportunities to prosper. It was possible for UDAAN.”

“Now I know, girls are no less than boys.” Photo: Priya Pradhan/CARE

Soaring high, dreaming big

Archana is now in grade 11. It’s been four years that UDAAN ushered her to the mainstream public school and opened multiple avenues to plan her future. She now dreams of becoming a pharmacist or a nurse to serve people.

“Before UDAAN I felt like a frog inside a well. I couldn’t see the world outside. UDAAN has been a life changing experience,” Archana says.

“Now I know, girls are no less than boys,” Archana concludes with confidence and luster in her eyes.

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