Educational Participation of Girls in Nepal:An Ethnographic Study of Girls’ Education in a Rural Village

In this study I explored the extent to which women and girls are disadvantaged within the Nepalese education system. I investigated the barriers to, and opportunities for, participation by women and girls in the formal education system, including those who are doubly discriminated against because of gender and caste.

I explored the issues in three ways: through an examination of my own experience growing up in Nepal as a member of a “high caste” Brahmin family, and employment within the Ministry of Education in Nepal;through an exploration of the relevant literature within and outside Nepal;and through an ethnographic case-study of a village community. I spent about four months as a participant observer in the village engaging in unstructured in-depth interviews along with recording conversations and reflections in a research diary. Although the village is situated only fifteen kilometres from Kathmandu, it exhibited a pattern of life that has changed very slowly in the last sixty years, since the beginning of modern schooling.

I have reported the extent of changes in the experiences of women and girls through their own reflections on their social position and the value of education to them, and their involvement and attendance at public occasions. I also reported on the changing attitudes of men and their resistance to those changes. I paid particular attention to the position of girls through a detailed account of a public secondary school situated in the village. I reported on my observations in classrooms, conducted interviews with the girls, inside and outside the school, and read their diaries in which they reflected their experiences in school and at home.

I selected key informants, a group of Dalit[1] and Non-Dalit girls and boys, who were studying in school, as well as a group of girls who had stopped attending school. The activities of these children were observed in and outside the school. Interviews were also conducted with their parents, teachers and members of different communities in the village. These opinions were supplemented with views about the education of girls in general, and Dalit girls in particular, and from discussions with Dalit activists and NGO workers.

I consider how the value of education for girls is revealed, and affected, by competition from private schools, where boys predominate. I built a picture of the differences in educational participation of Dalits and non-Dalits, males and females and Dalit and non-Dalit girls. I also examined the role of NGOs and their influence in participation of women in education.

I incorporated concepts of inclusion and exclusion into Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction, as grounds for understanding how discrimination towards girls and Dalits is perpetuated in education. I also borrowed the concept of cultural production theory, in order to examine how the schooled children resist traditional beliefs and prejudiced attitudes, about gender and caste, where the school offers a forum for creation of a new counter-culture. I also drew on Freirean approach to analyse how to increase self-awareness of the excluded about their exclusion.

I presented an analysis of the case-study material, and a consideration of what these add to the literature and my own autobiographical reflections. I have followed this with a critical analysis of how girls, and disadvantaged children, have experienced change in their educational participation, as a result of the efforts made by the government to implement its educational policies.

I conclude that discrimination against girls in education persists, despite some changes, and is exacerbated by the interaction between gender, caste and poverty. The patriarchal value system and prejudices towards girls’ education are still creating major barriers to girls’ opportunities for education, with “low caste” disproportionately increasing discrimination towards girls, compared to boys. The growth of private education is an added force for discrimination, with boys far more likely than girls to be supported by their families at private schools. I suggest that ways of combating discrimination need to be reviewed, within the relatively new context of a Nepalese democratic republic. This will require a redirection of policy-making and administration, from personal careers and patronage, towards a determined effort to put into practice the ideals of the Education for All programme in Nepal, without regard to gender, caste or ethnic background.

Gayatree Timsina

[1] So-called low caste people, considered to be untouchables, in conventional Hindu society.