After the Nepal earthquake, we must rebuild our children’s dreams

Barriers to education, Global Youth Ambassadors

By Bhawana Shrestha, an A World at School Global Youth Ambassador from Nepal

The earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25 left Samikshya Dhungel, a Teach For Nepal Fellow, in agony. Dhungel dedicated her one year of teaching at a public school in Sangha Chowk, Sindhupalchowk district, and had just geared up for her second year when the disaster struck and took her 37 kids.

Her grief has been made worse by the sorrow-filled questions of one of her children. “Are we going to read this year, miss?” and “What about our school?”

With a heavy heart, Dhungel says: “The kids are eager to learn and they want to move on from this fear of tremors. But 70% of the school buildings in Sindhupalchowk have collapsed and temporary alternatives of where children are going to be taught haven’t been thought of yet.”

Sign Bhwana’s #UpForSchool Petition – Rebuild Our Schools.

We need to think of an answer for Dhungel’s child. He is just one student. But there are thousands of others who have the same question on their minds and there are thousands of teachers and guardians like Dhungel who are undergoing the same thought process.

According to UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Asia and the Pacific), more than 16,000 public and private schools – about half of the country’s total – have been damaged. Though the extent of damage is still being assessed, the initial reports indicate that a huge proportion of school facilities have been totally destroyed or severely damaged by the earthquake.

Earthquake damage to a school in Chapagaun, Lalitpur

It’s very important to create the environment for children to go to school and make them feel school is a safe space to help them recover gradually from the terrible trauma.

We were thankful that the earthquake happened on a Saturday when schools were closed. The National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET) in 1998-99 evaluated the risk to schools in Kathmandu Valley. It predicted that if an earthquake happened during school hours that 29,000 students, teachers and staffs would be killed and 43,000 seriously injured.

Though we were lucky that the physical injuries of children may be less than predicted, there can be an emotional toll.

Psychiatrists say children are the most affected by aftershocks and would need extra attention and medical care, as te trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children exposed to multiple disasters experience particularly high rates of both depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms. One study of Sri Lankan children exposed to both an ongoing civil war and the 2004 tsunami found that 40% of children experienced PTSD.

The communities to which children return – and the community services that families with children rely on – will play important roles in fostering children’s recovery. Resuming the usual routines of school and play activities was associated with more positive adjustment among the children exposed to traumatic war experiences in Sierra Leone, as well as for children who experienced Hurricane Katrina.

Damage to one of the Chapagaun school’s classrooms

Children make up half of Nepal’s population. At least 940,000 children are affected by the earthquake and the number is increasing.

It’s vital that Nepal’s children go back to school. Besides fulfilling the psychological needs, experience shows that out-of-school children are at greater risk of violence, rape and recruitment into fighting, prostitution and other life-threatening, often criminal, activities. Many will simply never return to the classroom. Many could fall into child labour, child marriage and sexual exploitation.

It’s true that when families are compelled to survive open under the sky with no food and shelter, education won’t be their priority. But, along with the urgent needs, resuming school early should also be among the priorities.

It’s time to think about rebuilding our schools. Rebuilding takes time but till then at least let us find some alternative solutions, where children could find a safe place for them to learn and enjoy their childhood. Let’s work together to ensure the tremors will not shake our children’s joy.

Let’s rebuild our schools. Rebuilding schools means rebuilding children’s dreams.

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