Nepal has no idea how to prepare its children for the future. But it needs to learn before it is too late.
With the arrival of UNICEF executive director Henrietta H Fore in Nepal, people in government and others who have lived out of donor largesse are scrambling to talk about children. With a renewed global focus on Nepal, as many international visitors have been visiting, the country is trying to figure out what to say. Unfortunately, with this crowd, the authorities concerned cannot rely on a transient patchwork as they did for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit. The discussions have to be substantial. It has been three decades since the government committed to children’s rights but has little to show for it. It was perhaps because of this that the government representatives, speaking at one of the functions I attended, we’re unable to clearly espouse the official view, or the official future plan of action, on the subject. Nepal has no idea as to how it will implement UNICEF’s new Generation Unlimited initiative, which is ‘a global partnership working to prepare young people to become productive and engaged citizens’. The initiative apparently connects ‘secondary-age education and training to employment and entrepreneurship, empowering every young person to thrive in the world of work’. It is important to examine children-related issues from a few perspectives.
Is education preparing children for the future?
A government report that has detailed statistics till 2017 says there are 7.4 million children in school in grades 1 to 12 with a slightly higher percentage of boys compared to girls. They are in 35,601 schools all over the country. Formal education has never been a priority in Nepal; it only gained some recognition from the Rana regime a hundred years ago. The Shah kings further messed up matters by creating a concoction of systems that crippled education. And, since the 1990s, it has been more about the politics of teachers, unions and private school cartels. There is an unattributed saying that goes: The collapse of education spells the collapse of a country. Perhaps Nepalis have followed this too well.
With technology being adopted rapidly, and machine learning and artificial intelligence entering our lives at an even faster pace, the response has to be even faster. The top 10 jobs of today are ones most had not even heard of just 10 years back. In the US, a recent study revealed how more than 15 percent of the people hired by the top 10 tech firms did not go to college. The discourse has moved to income generation rather than job creation as people want income, not jobs, and definitely do not want to be in the same job for thirty years like our social security programmes assume. The big question, therefore, will be how we will recalibrate our education system to get our children to adjust to the new world.
New technology brings new problems
The former executive director of UNICEF—and only Nepali to have reached the highest coveted position in the United Nation—Kul Chandra Gautam recently shared that the big challenge at present has been induced by technology. Social media and the internet have created massive problems by generating new forms of child abuse—be it in the forms of sexual or financial exploitation. He also talked about the new types of addiction towards gadgets that are becoming a major social challenge.
I remember seeing children less than three years of age, at a children’s ward in a hospital, who had to wear neck support as their parents and grandparents were letting them overindulge in using mobile digital screens. Children’s addiction to electronic devices and their anti-social behaviour is much talked about. But little is done to stop such behaviour. People also seem to be happier to complain about this trend, rather than protecting their own children. There is also no way to restrict people of all ages from using new media platforms, be it Tik Tok or content on WhatsApp.
What can be done?
But where should the responsibility lie? In a country where it is common to see parents bringing children to A-rated movies or forcing their kid’s classmates to drink at birthday parties, the issue of proper parenting needs to be discussed. Let us not forget that many parents who pay for their children’s college education abroad spend money not for a good degree, but for a visa. This mindset has to change.
Schools also have a significant role to play. Schools and colleges are found to advertise themselves as a transit point on the way to obtaining citizenship and employment abroad. This has to change in a really big way. We have to prepare for the children to leave Nepal, but to surely come back after amassing knowledge and skills.
Finally, instead of pointing fingers, we have to think about the steps that can be taken individually to improve the situation. Today, the Nepal Economic Forum is hosting an event to kickstart the discourse. We need to secure the future of half of Nepal’s population. Let’s join hands.