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Rough Cut: Nepal: A Girl's Life
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about education and literacy in Nepal and follow links to more on the country's history.

Literacy in Nepal

Despite poor educational opportunities, Nepal's literacy rates have vastly improved during the last 50 years. Changes began with the overthrow of the ruling Rana regime in the 1950s, after which, the National Education Planning Commission was founded. Before the revolution, the literacy rate was only 5 percent and only 1 child in 100 attended school. Today literacy rates are closer to 50 percent.

The Rana family dynasty ruled Nepal for more than 100 years, from 1846 to 1951, and limited schooling because of fear that an educated public threatened its power. The dynasty's first ruler, a former army commander named Jung Bahadur, came to power in the aftermath of the bloody Kot massacre in Kathmandu, a free-for-all sword and knife fight in the courtyard of the palace armory.

Nepalese schoolchildren.


The massacre broke out after a series of assassinations and months of aristocratic in-fighting over who should rule the country. Bahadur and his six brothers emerged from the melee unscathed, as dozens of their adversaries -- Nepal's aristocratic elite -- lay dead in the palace grounds. As the only military leader left in a position of strength in the capital, Bahadur took over the office of prime minister, installed a figurehead monarch, and immediately launched purge killings to remove his remaining competitors and driving 6,000 people into exile in India. Soon, he deposed and exiled the king and queen after a failed plot to assassinate him. The new monarch gave him the name Rana, an old Indian title denoting martial glory, and Bahadur's family became known as the Rana dynasty.

Slow Road to Reform

For the next 100 years, the country remained a monarchy in name, though the nine Rana prime ministers that followed Bahadur functioned essentially as dictators. Their repressive rule left the country with primitive economic and social conditions. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, however, a group of Nepalese exiles in India witnessed the success of Gandhi's Indian National Congress and realized that the Rana regime would fall without the support of British colonialists. They established the Nepali Congress Party and pushed for the ouster of the Ranas and for political and labor reform. By the early 1950s, reformists brought down the Rana regime, and set the country on a new course. The king returned from exile to form a constitutional monarchy and an interim constitution was passed in March 1951.

Part of Nepal's literacy problem lies with the 56 different dialects that are spoken across the country. Official Nepali language is not the mother tongue of about half the population, but it is the only language of instruction.

The new government led to many social reforms, and over the next few decades, the literacy rate began to rise: 24 percent in 1981, then 33 percent in 1990, and 44 percent by 1998. Educational opportunities also began to expand, with 321 primary schools in 1951 and 21,473 primary schools by 1995.

But as Andreas Matles Savada wrote in his Library of Congress Nepal history, "Although there has been a remarkable numerical growth in the literacy rates, as well as the number of education institutions over the years, the quality of education has not necessarily improved."

Part of the problem lies with the 56 different dialects that are spoken across the country. Official Nepali language is not the mother tongue of about half the population, but it is the only language of instruction. School enrollment rates are also low, particularly in lower secondary and secondary schools. To attend, many children often have a long trek by foot to the nearest school, and extreme poverty means that children are simply more important at home helping with family tasks. There are also vast differences in literacy rates between boys and girls (63 percent among boys and 35 percent among girls), and roughly twice as many children living in urban areas are likely to read as those living in more remote parts of the country.

With unemployment running at more than 40 percent and a third of Nepalese living below the poverty line, getting a decent education doesn't enter the realm of possibility for many children.

With the country's unemployment rate running at more than 40 percent and a third of the population living below the poverty line, getting a decent education simply doesn't enter the realm of possibility for many children.

The Room to Read program has helped to fill some of the education gap. The organization's efforts to build schools, libraries, and other educational infrastructure are largely targeted at rural areas and the scholarships focus on girls. Since former Microsoft employee John Wood founded the organization in 2000, Room to Read has built 287 schools, established more than 3,600 libraries, and published 147 new local language children's titles. Through book drives and fundraising in the United States, the nonprofit has also donated more than 1.4 million English-language children's books, funded 2,336 long-term scholarships for Nepalese girls, and established 117 computer and language labs.

Sources: Library of Congress, Nepal Literacy Watch Bulletin, UNESCO, Room to Read, Encyclopedia Britannica, CIA Factbook.

Related Links

The Skoll Foundation
Visit the Skoll Foundation Web site to learn more about other international projects supported by the foundation. The fund was set up by former eBay president, Jeff Skoll, in 1999 to invest in social entrepreneurs who are using innovative ways to bring about systemic change in underserved communities around the world.

Social Entrepreneurs
Check out other FRONTLINE/World stories focusing on the work of social entrepreneurs, from India to Uganda and South Africa.

Nepal Profile
The BBC country profile offers more demographic and recent historical information of Nepal, focusing mostly on the details of the Maoist rebellion of the past 10 years and the resulting political unrest.

Nepal Timeline
This comprehensive timeline from the BBC details important events in Nepalese history, from the beginning of Rana rule in 1846 to the 2001 shooting of the royal family by Crown Prince Dipendra.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time
After Greg Morgenstern failed in his attempt to climb K2 in 1993, he was dangerously ill and nursed back to health in a small village in the Himalayas. In this book, he writes of his promise to pay the village back by building them a school and his efforts to start 55 schools in the region with his Central Asia Institute.

Room to Read
The Room to Read Web site details the methods and programs used in their attempt to bring educational opportunities to impoverished regions around the world, as well as providing opportunities to contribute. There is also a link to founder John Wood's book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World.

Nepal: Dreams of Chomolongma
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Sapana Sakya returns to her native Nepal to follow mountain climber Lhapka Sherpa in her attempt to become the first Nepali woman to summit Mount Everest and survive.

-- Matthew Vree