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The Last Girl In School

Nepal, November 26, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

As school began again this year, Anita Chaudhary was prepared to spend back-to-school day as she had for the last few years: at home. She was certain that, once again, she'd watch from the doorway of her family's tiny house as dozens of neighbor children passed by on their way to class.

Her family — mother, father and five children including herself — is perhaps the poorest in the village of Bichpuri, Nepal. Their garden plot, leased from the local landlord, is meager: perhaps the length and width of an average residential driveway in the United States. The Chaudhary family depends on the vegetables they grow here for year-round sustenance. There is nothing left to sell for additional household income.

Anita's father finds work when he can, mostly as a day laborer for local farmers during planting and harvest seasons. At other times of the year, it's nearly impossible for him to earn a regular wage: as a member of the area's Tharu ethnic group, he is looked down upon, an outcast.

Today, as always, 12-year-old Anita was up by 6 A.M. to help her mother with the morning chores: feeding the cows, washing the dishes and cleaning the house. Her father had left before sunrise to seek work for the day. But instead of tending the garden, by 7 A.M. she is dressed in a crisp, clean uniform, on her way to a morning study group. From there, she would walk with her friends to school in the neighboring village.

It turns out — thanks to her fellow youth in Bichpuri — that this year would be unlike any other for Anita. This year, she wouldn't be the one left behind.

Seeing a need

For the past few years, many members of Bichpuri's village youth council had walked by Anita's house on their way to school and seen the lonely girl standing there, glancing from her doorway.

"She was the only person her age in the village not attending school," said 21-year-old Uday Raj Chaudhary, president of the council. "Everyone should have the opportunity to learn. So our group met and decided to do something."

Uday and the other 48 members of the council — whose ages range from 16 to 30 — discussed the situation, pooled their own money and sent representatives to speak with Anita's family. They offered to pay the 500 Nepalese rupee ($7.00) enrollment and 300 rupee ($4.22) monthly tuition, as well as the cost for uniforms and other fees. Anita's mother and father happily accepted.

Public school in Nepal is supposed to be essentially free of cost. However, a lack of government resources has led to overcrowded classrooms and an unmanageable teacher-to-student ratio. The school that Anita attends has 500 students, but only 15 teachers. As a result, communities bear the cost of hiring additional teachers for local schools — fees that are often passed on to poor families who can't afford to spend any more.

Children in many neighboring villages aren't as fortunate as Anita and remain at home as she once did.

Better late than never

Anita attends school from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. six days a week, Sunday through Friday. Her classes include social studies, history, Nepali language, and science. Her favorite course is math. Why?

"Because I'm good at it," she smiled, shyly.

She missed three years of school, so Anita is in third grade, in class with nine- and ten-year-olds. Nevertheless, she is making the best of her opportunity.

"She is a very hard worker," said Uday. "She also helps other students with their work."

Helping is something that Anita aspires to make a career: she wants to continue in school and become a nurse.

"I would like to stay here in my village and care for the people here who fall ill," she explained. "I am happy to have the chance to go to school now. I'm glad that my friends here put their trust in me, and I will always remember their kindness."