By Megh Raj Ale and Rupa Joshi
BIRATNAGAR, Nepal, 13 June 2012 – Last month about 250 children in their school uniforms marched noisily around the central market in Biratnagar, in eastern Nepal, behind a banner proclaiming ‘Allow us to study’.
They shouted slogans, rang bells, blew whistles and clanged together steel utensils, and carried signs reading ‘Let schools remain as Zones of Peace’, ‘We are not just the future, we are today’, and ‘Search for alternatives to closures’.
The children, part of the Network of Working Children’s Clubs of Morang District and Biratnagar Municipality, were protesting efforts to close schools during ‘bandas’ –political strikes that have shut down roads and businesses around the country as groups try to influence the development of a new national Constitution.
“The political parties and groups who have called for these bandas have been toying with our future by not allowing us to attend school,” said 12-year-old Niraj Malla, Assistant Secretary of the Working Children’s Clubs Municipal Coordination Committee. “And our parents have also not been able to work and earn a living due to these closures.”
Protesting school closures
As part of their protest, the children sat down on a once-busy road – now empty because of the strike – and conducted a mock class session, with learning activities that lasted for nearly half an hour.
When a sizable crowd had gathered, they began to speak about the importance of guaranteeing children’s rights in the new constitution. They also demanded that schools be made ‘Zones of Peace’, meaning that schools should be sanctuaries from conflict, unaffected by political disputes like those currently affecting Nepal.
“It’s been two weeks since these bandas have been going on,” said Manisha Karki, Chair of Municipal Coordination Committee. “For many of the families that depend on daily wages, it means that they are struggling to feed their children. Political parties should seek solutions to their issues though talks and negotiations, and not through bandas.”
Manisha added that the closures interrupt children’s educations, harming their development and futures.
Dilli Dhimal, the only adult speaker at the rally, concurred with Manisha. “Look around you. Children who should have been in classrooms are either spending their time in front of the television, or are spilling into the streets,” he said.
Bystanders agreed with the children.
“On the one hand, the children’s education is being played with by these protestors,” said one man. “And on the other hand, what about the school fees that we have paid that are not being utilized?”
Empowering youth leaders
The working children’s clubs are groups for children who have to work to help support their families. The clubs were first organized to help these children share their experiences. A network of the clubs was later created, empowering child participants to raise awareness about issues affecting them, including school enrolment, violence against children and gender inequality.
When the members of various children’s clubs in Biratnagar decided to protest the school closures, they shared their plans with the NGO Forum for Human Rights and Environment (FOHREn), a UNICEF partner. FOHREn supported the children’s initiative by providing them with the logistical support, including banners, megaphones and snacks.
UNICEF has been working closely with FOHREn and the children’s clubs for over a decade, helping to build children’s capacity to lead, advocate and raise awareness about children’s rights. The clubs members have also been playing a major role in Biratnagar Sub Metropolitan City’s bid to become a child-friendly city by 2015. UNICEF is collaborating with the Biratnagar Municipality for the same purpose.
The children’s protest was summed up in a song sung by Suman Shah, who represented the ward-level working children’s clubs. She sang, “We appeal to you… please don’t close our schools, please don’t close our shops. Once we’re big and educated we’ll serve our country. We’re the children of this country. The future rests on our shoulders.”