One of the facts of life in rural Nepal is that young children – some as young as 4 or 5 – are often called upon to care for their younger siblings. With mother and father toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk it often falls on the very young to be the primary caregiver to children often only 1 or 2 years their junior. To those blessed with being born into wealthier environments this situation appears wrong on so many levels from child safety to the basic loss of a childhood experience for the child caregiver This older child (or, as often, the oldest female child) also loses out on schooling either late in first enrolling at school to being the first to abandon their studies. In some well documented cases the elder child brings the siblings along to school enlarging the class size and disrupting the class discipline with toddlers who are all too young to sit quietly through hours of class work. For an education system already under stress such disruptions are felt by all students and the entire community suffers as the cycle of poverty begins anew.
Now early childcare is an issue everywhere. Here in Canada where we are blessed with so much – even here, early child care is a day-to-day issue with parents – who will look after the young children while mother and father are off at work? So if it is an issue in Canada imagine what it is like in rural Nepal where mother and father work at back breaking work from dawn til dusk at a farm, tending goats or whatever their fate has cast them to. But what to do? What options do these people have? To survive one must work.
So, what to do? Or more specifically – what could we at CFFN do?
Last year Tineke retired from her job working for one of the best known early child care facilities in Ottawa – The Andrew Fleck Child Care Agency. Andrew Fleck was a wealthy merchant in Ottawa in the early 1900′s who took an interest in the care of the young children of servants who worked in the mansions of the Ottawa elite. Something must be done for them he thought and put his money into supporting an institution that would house the children and some child care workers during the day while their parents worked in the high homes of Ottawa. The agency continues to this day looking after young children, some from the margins of society. Well if Andrew Fleck can start a child care centre in Ottawa then we should be able to do the same in Nepal. After all, by rural Nepal standards, we are wealthy indeed.
It is here that we thought we could make a meaningful contribution by establishing a model for sustainable village-oriented community daycare. This would provide supervised care from the time that siblings drop off their young charges in the morning on the way to school until they can pick them up after school closes. This would be one way that children could attend school at will and on schedule.
The concept of early child care education is not new to Nepal. The government for many years has had a plan to have a series of child care centres rolled out in all 28,000 villages in Nepal. But the plan remains years behind schedule due to the lack of funding available and to the many legitimate but competing needs. So the program is largely underfunded and early child care facilities in rural districts are rare. Nevertheless the Government of Nepal has established training programs for communities that can provide their own centre and some funding to offset some of the salary costs. Still, despite this support, few communities have the means to build and maintain a structure, hire teachers and keep the enterprise running in good times and bad.
Our first thoughts were to form a standardized and managed home-based child care program at various homes in the villages, similar to what operates in licensed home-care in Canada. This way there would be no need for an expensive, purpose-built child care centre. However we soon learned that there are several cultural roadblocks to making this happen, roadblocks that will take some time to overcome and not really part of the problem we were trying to address. So we went back to the simplest of conceptual models; a freestanding purpose-built building centrally located and close to the existing schools. The model we would follow would be similar in concept to that developed by John Wood of Room to Read – offer the community a challenge grant.
The challenge grant is straightforward. The start up funding for construction materials and land purchase would be provided by CFFN in addition to ongoing operational funding for the first three years of operation including the salaries for two full-time teachers. The community for their part would provide the land, provide the labour for the building construction and ongoing maintenance, provide volunteer teachers to supplement the two fulltime teachers to maintain a 7-to-1 child-to-adult ratio and provide the food so the children could have morning and afternoon snacks and a full meal at noon. The grant would run for three years and after that the community would sustain the operation by themselves. We would work with the community to determine how this sustainability could occur.
But where could we start? We decided that at least for our first centre, we should pick someplace where we were almost guaranteed of success. Somewhere where we knew some of the people, where the village had previously demonstrated their commitment to the rights of all villagers to a good education. Through our friends Tom and Donna Lea of Chicago, Illinois we knew of such a village; Sarkuwa in the Baglung district of Western Nepal. Sarkuwa had previously demonstrated its ability to carefully manage a grant they had received some years earlier from Tom and Donna’s High School they had been “twinned” with. The US students had raised $8000 in an effort to help their Nepalese twin. The funds remain in place to this day as the citizens of Sarkuwa manage a series of local grants to needy parents funded by the interest returned on the original capital.
Our first meeting with the villagers was memorable. The Headmaster of the local High School chaired the meeting which was attended by many of the families who would directly benefit from the child care centre. Through our translator, Gyanendra, we explained what we had in mind, how the project would be a co-development between the CFFN and themselves and what we expected of them. The meeting ran long as it is not so simple to just set aside some arable land, nor is it easy for each family to donate volunteer time on a regular basis. As we discussed this more in detail though it became apparant that each family would be committed to 15 to 18 days per year of volunteer time. This they could manage. The villagers accepted the idea in principle and details were to be worked out with the local Mother Unit (women’s co-op).
The meeting with the Mother Unit was equally successful and subsequently an agreement was struck with the entire village to begin a pilot child care centre as soon as possible. A Board of Directors was elected and we provided suggestions for teacher selection, a draft programme and ideas for the building design. We also provided the first funding instalment.
Six months later we returned to Sarakuwa to find the pilot child care centre up and running. Two teachers had been chosen from the community, a temporary location found and the two teachers had been sent off to another community to learn the fundamentals of early child care. We visited the centre daily and provided a substantial amount of teaching and play materials. Tineke worked with the teachers after hours on how the equipment could be used in a “learn through play” environment. We also prepared a daily programme for them for the next 3 or 4 months, after which the centre would temporarily close while the teachers attended formal early child care training in the city of Baglung.
It is important to point out that Sarakuwa is not a poverty-stricken village. In fact compared to many rural villages it is reasonably prosperous and its village elders are enlightened and forward thinking. So we have in many respects picked the “low hanging fruit” in choosing to start there. But the need for child care exists and it is important to start any endeavour with a quick success. It is important in the pilot project to learn the true costs of establishing and maintaining such a facility as it is our wish to build more in other locations.
Breaking the cycle of poverty in Nepal will be a long and complex journey covering difficult terrain. But like all journeys, it goes step-by-step, village-by-village. Helping fix a systemic problem at the Primary School level is one of those steps and we believe community-based early child care is part of that fix. The solution we propose is within the reach of most villages in Nepal but does require some modest initial financial support from outside the village plus some guidance on future sustainability. Having a personal connection to the village is an important (though not vital) component in establishing and maintaining trust. The Nepalese Diaspora and the many Friends of Nepal living abroad could provide much of this support.
She is the future of Nepal – and our world
Please visit an informational website http://4c.cffn.ca and learn more about the initiative. The proponents look forward to having cooperation and participation from many generous individuals and institutions for educating rural and marginalized people of Nepal.