High up in the jungle hills, moist dwellings house the Dalit community. I reach them sweaty from the climb, my boots caked in red mud and supporting a red ant hitchhiker under my t-shirt. My companions, from the Sisters for Sisters project of Global Action Nepal, have cooly trekked up this mountain in flip flops, no sweat.
After only a week in the community, we have inspired a door to door campaign to encourage parents to send their kids back to school. We are working with Sisters for Sisters, a project set up by Global Action Nepal to mentor and support young girls to stay in school. We are targeting certain areas within Parewadanda such as the Dalit community. The Dalit community is composed of people of low caste. They are largely farmers, largely self-sufficient, with low incomes. The children are often required to help out with farm labour and, consequently, are more at risk of dropping out of school early.
The first family we talk to are unsure whether to send their children back to school. This family are not rich. If the school opens early, there will be a fee to compensate the teachers for neglecting their farms. The mother wears a bright Snoopy t-shirt full of holes and a traditional shirt. She crouches on the mud porch holding her baby and calmly allowing her other children to clamber over her. The husband squats a little way off.
The Uncle and Big Sister attempt to convince her to send her kids back to school. She stares blankly off into the distance as they talk. One of the older girls cries and hides her face. One young boy glares resentfully at me. Since I can’t understand much of the conversation I rely on facial expressions to judge how it is going. Smiles and laughter encourage me.
I have time to notice the mix of materials used to build their house: the mud, the wood, the corrugated iron roof secured with rocks against the monsoon. I notice the goats and chickens, the way some kids hide in the house, the way younger boys have already perfected their father’s smileless, guarded gaze and the girls are already painfully shy and reclusive.
We leave this family having raised some awareness of how important education is. But we have not changed the fact of their limited financial situation. That they cannot afford school fees or that early marriage offers a convenient way to remove the burden of caring for young girls. That school work clashes with housework or farmwork which offer more immediate rewards. And we have not changed the fact that even if these kids finish school they will struggle to make it beyond the village to a college.
We trudge further up the mountain to visit other families. Some are sieving rice or tending to the livestock but many sit and stare off into the jungle as we talk to them. The Sisters for Sisters representatives already know many of them and have a good record of encouraging and supporting their education. Many families seem to be intending to send their kids to school and we return downhill with a slight feeling of optimism. There may be many obstacles to educating a Nepalese child but Sisters for Sisters is working on removing a couple.