Author(s): Deepak Thapa
Year of Publication: 2015
Back in 1985, as a friend and I were approaching the fag end of our Muktinath trek, we set out early from Tatopani for what was promised to be a long day’s walk to Beni. I cannot recall much about the scenery, apart from the definite sensation of walking in a gorge. What I do remember quite distinctly though is that throughout the earlier part of the day we were being overtaken time and again by strapping young men, some alone and some in groups. They would come up from behind or clamber down from side trails and with the sure stride of mountain lads scramble down the trail. We could not quite fathom what was going on and it was only upon reaching the riverside village of Galeshwor in the afternoon that it all made sense. In a clearing outside the village were possibly a couple hundred or so of these men, engaged in the initial rituals of the recruitment process to join the British army.
I had read about the finest of Nepali manhood going off to serve the British Empire but that was the first time I could see for myself what that meant. Without a doubt, these were among the best specimens of young men to emerge from the heart of Magar country, all hoping to become a British lahure, and it really made my heart go out to them knowing that only a few would be successful and that some would not return home, out of shame for not having made the grade.
More girls than boys
A couple of years ago, I was hit by a strong sense of déjà vu that brought back memories of that day long ago. Driving down what generally is the deserted road to Chainpur in Bajhang, we came across droves of young women and some men headed in the same direction of the district headquarters. Just like the would-be soldiers in Myagdi, these Bajhangis would spring out of the mountainside and purposefully take the road to Chainpur. Since it was a mixed group, some banter was evident, but everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Hailed down by one such group and having obliged them, I soon learnt that there was a board examination going on for the diploma level (ie, Bachelor’s) and all of them were aspirants for a B.Ed degree. Education, I was told, is the subject of choice of almost every college-going student in the area.
Although only the single man in the group we picked up was employed and all the women were without work, it was just so heartening to learn that the pursuit of education was being valued to such an extent. Particularly, when there were married women as well who had set out to sit for the examination. Given that as late as 2003/04, the gender parity index (GPI) for secondary school girls in the Far-Western Region was 0.7, meaning that there were only seven girls in high school for every 10 boys, it was remarkable to witness so many young women in higher education.
Finding them jobs
The picture is far from perfect, according to recent figures, with tertiary education GPI in the Far West still at 0.43 in 2010/11, even though that was nearly two times more than the 0.25 in 2003/04, while at the higher secondary level it had gone up to 0.96, compared to 0.5 earlier. But with a GPI of 1.07 at the secondary level in 2010/11, indicating slightly more girls than boys attending high school, that scenario must have changed by now. The recent news that girls have, for the first time, outnumbered boys in the SLC examination is evidence that this is a country-wide phenomenon. Challenges remain, such as more girls failing compared to boys, but nothing insurmountable.
What will be difficult though is gainfully engaging these young women once they graduate. The daughter-in-law of our host in a Bajhang village I went to a couple of days later turned out to be one of those sitting for the B.Ed exams and was quite certain that she would get through that year. Full credit to our host, who happened to be a local schoolmaster, for allowing his son’s wife to continue with her studies, but sadly there was nothing waiting for her at the end of the day. Although he figures as one of the influential men in the village, there existed little possibility of getting his daughter-in-law a job at his school and neither was there anything available within walking distance, ie, a couple of hours up or down. NGO jobs are almost non-existent in the Far West, and social norms have not yet relaxed to allow women to migrate for work either. Hence, this young woman was willy-nilly staring at a future not unlike that of her illiterate mother-in-law’s.
Shankar Khadka is a well-known Maoist leader from Bajhang. He has an impressive record as a headmaster in his home village and is considerably popular as well. He was elected a member of the first Constituent Assembly but sat out the second one since he had thrown his lot with the Baidya Maoists. Khadka rued the fact that there were colleges coming up all over Bajhang and, in a number of cases, with his personal support. He said that he wished he could dissuade everyone who came to seek his help to start higher education classes in their village, and if they really wanted to, to offer anything other than Education as a subject of study. Since Education is apparently relatively easy to get through, especially in areas where resources are limited, that has become the subject of choice for both colleges and students. (In fact, Tribhuvan University’s Faculty of Education boasts that it ‘is the richest faculty in terms of the number of campuses, human resources and student enrolment’.) And so, Khadka the politician has no choice but to go along, although he knew full well that the subject prepares one for no other calling than that of the already overcrowded teaching profession.
Despite having seen the Maoists’ ‘scientific education’ in practice first-hand in schools during the conflict era and despite having come across it innumerable times in Maoist literature, I had not been able to get a handle on the concept. Talking to Khadka and peering together into the future of those who were studying Education, I was finally able to figure out what the Maoists meant. What they seemed to imply was practical or vocational education, something that can be applied on the ground, and Education is severely limiting on that score. While not wholly accepting their views on education, Khadka and his ilk did have a point. A degree for the sake of a degree is worth nothing. Certainly, education has other liberating effects and the impact of an educated mother on the family has been well established. But, I wonder what would happen to the enthusiasm of all those young women I had met when they entered a job market that has no space for them.
At least the young men in Galeshwor had other options. They could try out for the Indian Army, failing which the Nepal Army could also be considered, not to mention the Nepal Police. The vast majority of the newly-educated young women of Bajhang have no such choice. It was very sad to ponder on the real possibility of a long life behind the hearth for them.
Published on: 26 March 2015 | The Kathmandu Post