18 September 2019

Bringing children back to schools

The earthquakes and aftershocks which struck Nepal in 2015 had an enormous impact on the country’s poorest communities. The effect on Nepal’s children has been particularly severe. Although Nepal has made some progress on education in the past decade, the 2015 earthquake threatens to undo this work entirely. An estimated 28,000 schools have been damaged or destroyed by the earthquake; teacher absenteeism is set to soar, especially in the most remote districts; books, teaching equipment and other education resources have been permanently lost and there was a high probability that many students will never return to education.

Following a comprehensive field assessment, Pragya undertook a post-disaster education rehabilitation programme with the objective of restoring access to primary education, improving teaching standards and creating safe, supportive learning environments for over 1,000 children in 8 poor rural communities in Nepal. 

After consultations with teachers and School Management Committees (SMCs), a range of Teaching and Learning Materials (TLMs) were distributed in schools that had lost or damaged its stock in Dhading and Sindhupalchok. Basic TLMs included: blackboards, whiteboards, flipcharts, marker pens, wall clocks, globes, maps, atlases, dictionaries, alphabet boxes, shapes boxes, counting games, learning charts (animals, birds, human body, insects, flowers, etc.), story books (English and Nepali), crayon sets, drawing and colouring books, stationery sets, and scrabble games. Science and Mathematics Learning kits were also distributed that comprised: microscopes, slides, test-tubes, slides, bar magnets, stop watches, prisms, weighing machines, geometry sets, compasses, rulers, and a range of educational charts and table books.

The TLMs were distributed during a ceremony organised at each school in presence of representatives from Parents-Teachers Association, SMCs, teachers and students. In addition, teachers were given orientation to proper use of the learning materials to obtain maximal learning. Teachers were also trained for psychological and trauma counselling to support students affected by the disaster. The Teachers have expressed satisfaction that the material has helped them in teaching various new concepts to the children. They reported that with the help of the TLMs and TLAs, they are being able to upgrade the instructional quality of the school and increase the students’ learning and comprehension of the subjects, thereby improving their learning achievement and contributing to improved attendance and reduced drop-outs.

Women’s Vigilance Committees to prevent trafficking

Women living in Nepal’s poorest rural communities have suffered the most and the longest from the effects of the 2015 earthquake. The most vulnerable women and girls become victims of trafficking, and need support, care, awareness, resources and confidence for their safety. In response to the increase in VAWG and trafficking in the disaster-affected districts, Pragya worked with women’s groups to address the issue. 

Pragya carried out a scoping study on VAWG in rural Nepal with a particular focus on trafficking, examining the escalating risk that women and adolescent girls of rural families affected by the 2015 earthquake. 20 women’s protection groups and helplines were established in Nuwakot and Dhading districts by Pragya benefitting 202 women directly. 8 Women’s Vigilance Committees were formed in Nuwakot (in Thangsingh, Suryamati villages), each comprising 13-20 members. In Dhading district, two Women’s Vigilance Committees were formed in Gajuri and Gangajamuna after due consideration of vulnerable pockets. 

The Women’s Vigilance Committees were trained intensively by an expert with long experience on countering trafficking at the Nepal-India border. Inputs were provided on various forms of gender-based violence, surveillance of indicators for GBV and trafficking, case logging, effective psycho-social support to women to counter their vulnerability to trafficking and other gender-based violence, including preventive measures and provide safe spaces to them, and protect them from further harm. These committees have also been tasked with spreading awareness in the community on gender issues.

These Women’s Vigilance Committees were also provided with mobile phones to operate Women’s Helplines, and trained in the associated Protocols for assisting girls and women vulnerable to GBV or trafficking. The Helplines have been promoted in the area such that an estimated 505 women may be served by each Helpline. Linkages were provided with police and government departments as well as women’s protection centres in the districts, to enable them to alert these in case of trafficking.

Monthly support was provided to the Women's Groups and over one year 46 cases were reported to the Helplines set up by Pragya and acted upon by the women’s groups. Pragya continues to provide support to build the capacity of the helpline operators in effective psycho-social and support to women to counter their vulnerability to trafficking and other gender-based violence. 

Sustainable fodder farms in Nepal Himalayas

Communities in Dolpa district in Nepal Himalayas live a very difficult life, suffering extreme hardship and poverty. These outlying and remote districts have a poverty rate as high as 72% (as against the national average of 42%) and the severity of poverty is also the highest at 8.2% (as against 3.4% for the plains in Nepal). Agriculture is the sole occupation, and majority of the population comprises smallholder households. Agricultural productivity is however very low due to limited arable land, infertile soils, and climatic conditions that typically allow only one/two cropping seasons a year. Dependence on forests is high, for food supplements, fodder and fuel wood needs of communities, but overexploitation of forests and rangelands is leading to their degradation. Women in Nepal suffer highly discriminatory social and cultural practices. They lag far behind the men in education and health status and are frequently subjected to physical abuse. Due to their lower education levels women also earn between 25-60% less than men. The high altitudes are also subject to severe impacts of climate change - desertification is increasing & droughts are frequent, threatening livelihoods. This is increasing women’s drudgery- women perform the household chores of collecting fodder and fuel wood from the forests, and have to trudge much farther and longer to collect what they need.

Under a Pragya initiative, SHGs were formed in the villages of Ralli (Tripurakot VDC), Funhalduwa (Raha VDC), Byashgard (Lawan VDC) in Dolpa district of Mid-Western Development Region in Nepal. Meetings were held with the Mahila Mandals [village level women’s groups] to share with them details of the activities that would be undertaken in the project and explaining the role and expectations from them in making the interventions effective and useful for the community. Following this, 42 women from three villages were provided comprehensive training on the concept and processes of SHGs. Training of members is an important need for proper functioning of SHGs and training inputs included: Basic mathematics, book keeping, scheduling of meetings, social aspects of women empowerment, basics of lending money, borrowing and repaying. They were also oriented on the registration procedure of SHGs and opening of bank accountsby the local Bank Manager and Cooperative Officer. Post-training, the women were facilitated to open the SHG bank accounts. 

Another training program was organized at which group members were trained on reclamation of wastelands and irrigation technologies. The training dealt with wasteland management strategies such as erosion control measures and moisture conservation techniques, facilitating greening through planting economically important tree/shrubs, fuelwood and fodder species and cultivation of horticulture/medicinal plant species for economic benefits. The women were trained by staff from the local Horticulture and Forest departments. Faculty also provided the women with information on state schemes available under the Horticulture and Forest departments that could be accessed by the groups, and leaflets on the schemes were distributed to the SHG members. 

Financial assistance was then provided to the SHGs for land clearing and preparation of fallow lands for cultivation. Each SHG has demarcated 2 acres of wasteland for cultivation of fodder/fuel wood species and saplings of apple. Women in the 3 villages have taken up sowing of corn in an area of 1 acre to meet their fodder requirement for livestock. They have harvested the crop once and this has resulted in reduced number of visits to the forest for collection of fodder. Women now go for fodder collection only twice a week as compared to 5-6 times a week before the establishment of fodder farm. This has enabled them to spend more time with their children and family. 

Field volunteers continued hand holding of these groups by participating in their monthly meetings and assisting them in maintaining registers. The Horticulture department after proper verification of group’s bank account and meeting registers have approved the provision of apple saplings for the 3 SHGs at subsidised rates. Similar application to the Forest department was made for provision of fuelwood species.

Sanitation access in Nepal schools

Shree Panchakanya Secondary School, Kiranchowk 2, Gajuri Gaupalika of Dhading district, Nepal was completely damaged during the earthquake 2015. The school educates around 200 students from a range of ages from 4 to 18 years of age. There was no toilet in the school when it started functioning after the earthquake. For few months there was facility of temporary toilet but later on there was no any facility of toilet for the students. The open area somehow was used by the boys but due to lack of toilet in school the  attendance of girl students started dwindling.

After a site assessment by Pragya a toilet was constructed in the school. Now the school has 1 toilet block for boys and girls. The school authorities are happy. The attendance of the girls in the school increased after the construction of toilet. A school management committee has now been allotted to keep the toilet clean and safe for use. The students also lend a helping hand to clean the toilets by themselves before the school starts.

9 September 2019

Biodiversity Monitoring by Community Conservation Groups

Pragya has conducted studies and surveys of native species of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) and prioritised species for protection and conservation action that are routinely threatened by wild harvesting, logging and human encroachment. Following discussions and noticeable concentration of threatened MAPs like Prunus Africana, Olea Capensis, Elgon Teak, Mondia Whitei, etc. at three sites, these were shortlisted for developing into Community Protected Areas (CPAs). CPAs have been conceptualised as specially designated zones of forest land that have a high density of medicinal plants but are particularly vulnerable to degradation and depletion of the medicinal plants. 

Community Conservation Groups (CCGs) were established by Pragya Kenya with members from the local communities proximal to the concerned CPAs. Each group had a suitable mix of local youth with keenness for conservation and older community members with deep knowledge and experience of native MAP species. A training program was conducted to educate the newly formed Community Conservation Groups for the importance of biodiversity, identification of plant species, methodologies of monitoring, information collection and analysis, and data entry. 

The training methodology was designed to include conceptual inputs along with a series of guided activities / group tasks, using reflective methods to enable progressive skill-building and learning. The activities included group discussions and problem analysis, monitoring methodologies, and preparation of action plans. All activities were designed around local conservation issues with the aim of engaging the participants in a more effective way, while helping them to analyse information and the modes to monitor via indicators. Key concepts behind biodiversity monitoring indicators and formulation of monitoring plans were explained. The tools and processes for implementing biodiversity monitoring systems were also detailed, including survey techniques to be used, the involvement of stakeholders, indicators to consider such as species distribution, presence of invasive species and hunting / harvest changes of MAPs, how to set up a BDM unit, data collection and establishing / keeping a Biodiversity Monitoring register.

Along with the classroom sessions, practical demonstrations were also conducted for the trainees where they learnt how to mark a location using GPS gadgets, measure diameter of a tree, set up a 5 by 5 meters quadrat, count species variety within the quadrat and inspect the species for any pests and diseases. They were also taught to identify threat indicators to the site and species and finally populate this information in appropriate forms. The practical demo was in-depth and the trainees showed keen interest making the exercise a success. At the close of the training, the participants had requisite capacity to identify and monitor species, gather information through technical surveys and effectively plan for biodiversity conservation. The participants acknowledged a clear understanding of importance of biodiversity, monitoring methods and survey skills. They also acknowledged the training as unique’ and impactful, and requested additional training programmes to include more participants. 

Baseline Biodiversity Surveys were conducted at Isecheno (CPA 1) and Chilovani (CPA 2). The process began by marking boundaries for the CPA and marking mature trees at the boundaries with red ribbons;
GPS coordinates were also recorded. A Transect Walk was conducted through the CPAs during which the trainers provided information on the geographical context in relation to the surrounding physical features such as plantations, villages, streams etc., the habitat and other key features of the CPA. Based on the unique features observed within the site, four quadrats of 5 × 5m were selected as samples for detailed examination. The trainers described the area and its diversity to the participants while setting each quadrat. The CCGs examined soil type, soil quality, water content in the soil, presence of dead matter in the soil, occurrence of soil erosion, type of erosion and its possible causes; existence of water resources within the site and its location. Other information that was collected included plant coverage and status; populations and morphological characteristics of the plant species and their habitat; health of the plants; existence of any introduced plants; presence of animals / insects; signs of natural disasters and human disturbances. GPS coordinates were recorded for each quadrat.

With the help of the herbalist in each team, the CCGs identified medicinal plant species in each quadrat, counted the number of young and mature plants, observed their health and density, noted the threats to the species, filled the requisite information in the datasheets and photographed the species. The strong involvement of local communities in action-planning and developing specific plans were indicative of the community’s receptivity to the need for conservation and willingness to learn and participate. As follow up actions, three advocacy meetings were undertaken in the areas with attendance from members from the local communities and Forest department. The common concerns about illegal logging and charcoal burning, which contribute to the escalated rate of degradation of Kakamega forest, were discussed.

8 July 2019

‘School on Wheels’ - Madhulika’s story

Madhulika is the child of migrant workers from the plains, who work on the road projects in Kinnaur district. She attends the bi-weekly classes that Pragya’s Mobile Education Units (MEUs) run in Kinnaur (Himachal Pradesh) and Chamoli (Uttarakhand) districts of India. Shy and quiet, she sat in a corner of the van with the educational toys, while her classmates raucously joined in repeating the alphabet or the numerical tables. The teacher noticed Madhulika’s extreme diffidence, and encouraged her to speak up more, but she was content to sit with her toys in the van, as the teacher carried on with the lessons. 

Children like Madhulika, between the ages of 6 and 14, are guaranteed access to education under the Right to Education Act (RtE), a landmark legislation that was passed in 2009. There is little done to account for the quality of education imparted or the lack of access to schools, especially for the children of migrant workers and labourers, who end up dropping out of the education system altogether. Pragya’s Mobile Education Units, or ‘School on Wheels’ is an initiative that brings basic education to the doorsteps of underserved communities, providing them with basic literacy and education that follows the national curriculum. The Mobile Education Units serve the children who have dropped out from the education system, encouraging enrollment in the local schools, and help bridge the gap in the education system. 

Two weeks in, while her classmates confidently intone the alphabets and numbers, Madhulika still does not speak. After repeated coaxing by the teacher, she makes the long and daunting trip to the blackboard. To everyone’s surprise, Madhulika is able to identify all the alphabets and numbers on the board. The presence of a suitable learning environment ensured that Madhulika was learning and absorbing the instruction around her, even if her silence indicated otherwise. The challenge is to provide children with an opportunity for basic education. It is, after all, their fundamental right.

Solar-Wind Hybrid energy solutions

Pragya established a 2.1 KW capacity Solar-Wind Hybrid System (SWHS) in Lossar village of Lahaul & Spiti district (Himachal Pradesh) in the year 2004. The electricity generated by the SWHS is used to serve the households and also the health centre, alternate education centre, and a weaving centre in the village. The installation has brought revolutionary changes in the village especially in terms of education, healthcare and livelihood activities. Villagers are now able to carry out productive activities even in winter season, which was practically unimaginable prior to the installation. 

The commitment and response of the community members towards the commissioning of the SWHS was overwhelming. Every member in the village played his or her part in the venture and a sense of ownership was evident. The community members played a vital role despite the time of installation coinciding with the peak agricultural season in the village. People from every household volunteered on a rotational basis. The village council has taken responsibility for management of the SWHS, and has instituted a mechanism for smooth operations. Every household of the village contributes Rs. 500 per year, and funds are also collected for provision of electricity during social/commercial events in the village. The funds collected through these are used for repairs and maintenance of the SWHS, which also demonstrates how the villagers can sustainably manage such facilities and harbour a sense of ownership. 

Bringing children back to schools

The earthquakes and aftershocks which struck Nepal in 2015 had an enormous impact on the country’s poorest communities. The effect on Nepal...