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Accusations of Millions Embezzled through Nepalese School Construction Projects

Nepal has become a leader in innovate education technologies in South Asia, allocating billions to provide its state-run secondary schools with computers and internet access. However, Nepal is also one of the most corrupt states in South Asia, and recent reports find those two qualities intersecting. Millions of rupees are reported to have been embezzled through school construction projects under the School Sector Reform Plan (SRRP) in the Nawalparasi District of Nepal.

School class Nepal Accusations are that construction relatively small, child-friendly classrooms—two-room adjunct facilities added to existing schools—were consistently over-budgeted. Projects that should have cost between 1.2 and 1.4 million rupees (about $12,000-14,000) were consistently budgeted at twice that amount. School principals argued that the construction companies were sending substandard bricks and other low-quality materials. “More than 5,000 of the 9,000 bricks supplied [to our project] so far were sub-standard,” said Damodar Pathak, head teacher in Rastriya Lower Secondary school in Sanai. The District Education Officer, Tek Bahadur Thapa, said his office had no financial responsibility for budgeting the projects. “We were only granted technical and managerial responsibility,” said Thapa. Kamal Sah, an engineer at the district education office, says that some 6 million rupees have been embezzled through the projects.

SRRP is an initiative backed by the World Bank devoted to “increas access and improv quality of school education, particularly basic education.” The projects in question, constructing child-friendly classrooms in as many as 40 schools in the Nawalparasi district, is underwritten by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which operates a number of education support programs in Nepal.

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Afghan Ministry Says University Enrollments Grow

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education is reporting that more than 60,000 students will attend public universities as the academic year begins. This represents an increase of some 50 per cent over the 40,000 students who attended public universities last year.

“The Ministry of Higher education is committed to improv quality of education and enrol as many graduates in universities as possible,” said Masoud Turishtwal, an official in the ministry. He also expressed hope that the private sector would adjust to increased public enrolments: “The private sector shall improve their teaching methodology in order to impart high quality education.” An estimated 34,000 students are expected to enroll in private universities this spring.

Afghanistan – high-energy biscuits But even as more students are now attending universities, Afghanistan still has among the lowest enrollment rates in the world, with a gross enrollment of only 4 per cent, per the World Bank. The problem has drawn some attention: the World Bank currently has in place the Strengthening Higher Education Project (SHEP), building capacity among and advocating reform for Afghanistan’s tertiary education system. The United States recently committed $200 million to promote literacy programs throughout the country. Though it will take some time to see the effects of these programs—especially reflected in tertiary school enrollments—as the country’s infrastructure continues to develop and other countries continue to pledge aid and develop programs, there is hope that these numbers will continue to rise.

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Uterine Prolapse Epidemic among Nepalese Women

women%2520at%2520work%25202Without access to necessary reproductive and maternal health services, approximately 1.4 million women in Nepal suffer from uterine prolapse. These women not only suffer physically from this painful and debilitating condition, but also emotionally. They are stigmatized and sometimes even cast out of their families and communities as a result.

The incidence of uterine prolapse in Nepal has hit epidemic levels, affecting one out of ten women, with higher incidence among poor and rural communities. Several factors contribute to this epidemic including malnutrition, early marriage and pregnancy, multiple births in rapid succession, and performing heavy labor during and after pregnancy. Additionally, Nepalese women lack access to reproductive health education and medical  care.

At 17 years-old, Reena Pokharel gave birth without the assistance of a trained midwife or other medical professional due to her rural location. A soothsayer tried to facilitate the birth by putting pressure on her abdomen and instructing her to cough. She endured a painful and protracted labor that lasted four days and left her with a prolapsed uterus. Large numbers of women throughout Nepal have endured similar experiences.

When asked about her condition, Reena Pokharel, now 46 years-old, stated, “I became an outcast in my own family. They said I had brought bad luck and called me an evil omen. The community would not eat or work on farms with me. My husband beat me, saying I was lazy and unlucky.”

Most people in Nepalese society do not understand this medical condition. Consequently, women affected by uterine prolapse are often labelled as “lazy.” Husbands ridicule, beat or even leave their wives due to their inability to have sex or perform daily tasks. Due to social stigma, these women also avoid talking about their pain or getting help for their condition. Many have no idea what causes their symptoms and options available for treatment.

Uterine prolapse occurs when pelvic floor muscles and ligaments weaken, allowing the displacement of the reproductive organs. Without proper support, the uterus slips down into the vaginal canal, and in severe cases  may even protrude out the vagina. This condition usually affects older, menopausal women but in Nepal there is a high incidence among women as young as their 20s.

Documented causes of uterine prolapse in Nepal include inappropriate birthing methods that include placing pressure on the abdomen, difficult and prolonged labor, giving birth at a young age, and having a large number of children in a small amount of time. Additionally, malnutrition stunts the development of pelvic muscles and hard physical labor strains the muscles.

Once uterine prolapse develops, women experience disabling symptoms including abdominal and back pain, trouble urinating and defecating, pain and difficulty when having sex, and a predisposition to infection. The resulting discomfort makes it difficult for affected women to sit, walk, or perform daily labor tasks.

“I started feeling back pain and stomach pain and I couldn’t stand straight or sit or do work. I feel pain in my lower abdomen and generally I have back pain when I work hard. When I sneeze my uterus comes out,” explained Kopila, a 30 year-old woman.

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Despite Reforms, Education in Myanmar Has a Long Way to Go

In December, the Women’s Forum of Myanmar hosted a panel on education to discuss the progress the country has made—and how far it still has to go. Myanmar’s government, only recently reconstituted following the dissolution of the military junta that had ruled the country since 1988, has made moves to reform the repressed educational system, like reopening Yangon University and reinvesting in higher education. However, critics of the system suggest that the nation’s education has fallen in quality over the past decades. “In terms of quality, we have far to go,” said MP Su Su Lwin. “During the past 25 or 30 years, there’s been a decline in quality.”

burma seah1 cover

The panel, echoing previous calls for higher education reform in Myanmar, targeted tertiary education as a necessary step in solidifying both a democratic transition, and better educational performance. Kamal Ahmad, founder of the Asian University for Women, based in Bangladesh, argued “You have to have a decent secondary education. You to have a decent higher education because where will the teachers come from? Who will develop the curriculum? Who will provide leadership?” A focus on higher education is aimed to ameliorate the “lost generation” created by the junta’s repression of schools and especially universities.

Also at issue is the persistent problem of gender discrimination in Myanmar schools, where women are held to higher entrance standards than men. One young woman reported that “To go to the Institute of Medicine, girls have to score higher than boys. A girl needs to reach 420 out of 500 points [on the entrance exam]. Boys can get accepted if they have only 390 to 400 points.”

There are international funding efforts to assist Myanmar’s educational system. Last month, the World Bank renewed its development commitment to Myanmar. The commitment “includes funding of around $200 million… to help Myanmar make progress towards MDGs ” including education, said Word Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

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Despite Ongoing Education Programs, Illiteracy Still High Among Afghan Recruits

The United States has committed $200 million towards literacy programs for members of the Afghan army. The programs will continue to fund classes sponsored by the US and NATO. Almost 400,000 troops have attended literacy classes, but there are still significant problems facing military and police forces. “Some command officials responsible for the literacy training program roughly estimated that over half of the force”—consisting of about 352,000—“was still illiterate as of February 2013,” said a report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. “According to officials, this low level of literacy is likely to persist through the end of the decade,” continued the report.

Oruj schools

Literacy programs for Afghan security forces began in 2009 to complement the US-led military instruction. Since then, literacy programs have qualified 233,600 students at first-grade level, 98,700 at second-grade level, and 76,800 at third-grade level. “Literate forces are easier to train, more capable and effective, and better able to understand human rights and the rule of law,” the Inspector General’s report added. “Further, literate soldiers and police can account for equipment and weapons by completing paperwork and reading serial numbers.”

The CIA estimates that the literacy rate among Afghan men stands at 43.1 per cent (just 12.6 per cent among women)—low numbers despite recent improvements in school facilities and girls’ education. The US had intended to hand the programs over to Afghans by the end of the year, but the report says that the Afghan government and ministries have been “slow to fulfill their stated commitments.” The International Security Assistance Force says that NATO forces are now keeping tighter controls on funding for the programs, and with improved oversight have saved some $19 million.

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Afghani Schools to Reopen Despite Political Upheavals

The Afghan Education Minister, Farooq Wardak, confirmed last month that Afghanistan would continue to reopen schools following the withdrawal of overseas forces. 700 schools that had been shut down by attacks across the country have now been reopened, and the number of students in the school system has increased from about 900,000 in 2001 to 10.5 million in 2014, 42 per cent of whom are girls. Mr. Wardak also said that a decade ago, there were only 400 teachers being trained, while now there are some 77,000.

Helping Hand

Though the commitment to reopening schools and increasing the number of teachers trained are more encouraging signs of a recovering school system, there are still some concerns about Afghan security. A UN report from last year counted 167 separate incidents of attacks affecting education, 49 per cent of which were carried out by armed groups, including Taliban forces. Attacks included intimidation, threats against students and teachers, suicide and IED bombs. Mr. Wardak said opposition from the Taliban was waning in some areas of the country, and that some schools even relied on the Taliban for security. “We’ve had to work with conflict for 35 years,” he said. With the withdrawal of Western troops from the region, there are continuing fears of a reassertion of power by the Taliban and other armed groups.

Mr. Wardak did remain optimistic about the future of education in Afghanistan, and that he wanted to see Afghanistan become a “mainstream member of the world community.” He added that by 2020, every child would have a place in primary education.

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US and Pakistan Announce Pakistan Reading Project

On Feb. 13, the United States and Pakistan announced a new joint venture, the Pakistan Reading Project, a five-year, $160 million plan to improve the reading skills of 3.2 million children throughout the country. The project aims to improve the quality of education in 38,000 Pakistani schools, and the skills of 94,00 teachers. “The launch of the Pakistan Reading Project represents a long term commitment from the IRC and USAID to reach 3.2 million children with improved reading programs and ensure that 2.5 million of them are reading at grade level,” said John Keys, senior vice president of international programs at the IRC.

Girls in playground, Abbottabad, Pakistan, 15 September 2011Pakistan’s literacy rate, standing at 55 per cent, is among the lowest in the world, ranking 113 among 120 nations surveyed by UNESCO. Timo Pakkala, UN Resident Coordinator in Pakistan said, “Education is one of the key priority areas of the government of Pakistan.” Pakistani enrollment rates are also among the highest in the world—only 66 per cent of children attend primary school, and 7.2 million children are not enrolled in primary school.

Despite an educational system that has underperformed and is corrupt and in disarray, there have been improvements in increasing the literacy rate especially in rural areas of the country. The Pakistan Literacy Project aims at a holistic approach to literacy gains, targeting schools, universities, and expanding English skills for more than 5,000 low-income students. “We are hopeful that Pakistan Reading Project… will assist our government’s efforts to improve the prevailing situation by reaching out to 4 million primary school children and providing them with the opportunity to enhance their reading skills,” said Minister for State Education, Training and Standards in Higher Education ENG Muhammad Bligh-Ur-Rehman. 

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Sex Ed Comes to Pakistani Girls

On the heels of a recent UNESCO initiative to improve access to and quality of girls’ education, a new program run by the Village Shadabad Organisation is bringing sex education to nearly 700 girls in eight schools in rural Pakistan. The program begins with eight year old girls and teaches them about puberty, rights, and what to do in case of an attack. “We cannot close our eyes,” said Akbar Lashari, head of the VSO. “ a topic people don’t want to talk about, but it’s [a] fact of our life.”

Studying for the chance to become a teacher

Lashari says that sex education was the villagers’ idea. Parents are informed of the curriculum before enrollment, and none has objected yet, according to Lashari. The lessons also cover issues of marriage, including marital rape. “Our teacher has told us everything that we’ll have to do when we get married. Now we’ve learned what we should do and what we should not,” said Sajida Baloch, 16. In Pakistan, where marital rape is not a recognized crime, teaching the girls about the problem is a novel idea. “We tell them their husband can’t have sex with them if they are not willing,” Lashari said.

Sex education remains a largely taboo topic in Pakistan—Arshad Javed, a doctor in Lahore who has written three books on sex education says he sells 7,000 copies every year, but that none are bought by schools. “It is against our constitution and religion,” said Mirza Kashif Ali, president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, representing 152,000 schools nationwide. “What’s the point of knowing about a thing you’re not supposed to do? It should not be allowed at school level,” he claimed. However, according Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema council alliance of moderate clerics, “If the teachers are female, they can give such information to girls within the limits of sharia law.”

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Grant Extends UMass Work in Afghanistan

A new $23 million grant from USAID  will allow the University of Massachusetts, UMass, to extend and expand its work in Afghanistan. The grant is part of a five-year, $92 million project designed to strengthen higher education in Afghanistan by way of a consortium headed by Family Health International, a group that includes Purdue University, the UMass College of Education, the Afghan Holding Group and Altai Consulting. “We will continue to build on the foundations with the Ministry of Higher Education [of Afghanistan],” said David R. Evans, director of the UMass College of Education’s Center for International Education.

School in Afghanistan

Evans said that UMass will be able to provide training for students to meet the demands of a growing and changing economy. “We will be creating associate degrees and revitalizing some new bachelors degrees and new masters,” he said. Joseph B. Berger, the College of Education’s associate dean for research and engagement added “We’re very dedicated to improving higher education in Afghanistan. This is a way to support what has become a mission for us.”

The grant comes at a critical time for higher education in Afghanistan, which has recently faced increasing violence. Women’s rights in Afghanistan, including access to higher education, where only 22 per cent of the faculty in universities and only 42 per cent of the student body are female, also remain a divisive and unresolved issue. As American and other western forces withdraw from the region, issues of access to and quality of education have drawn increased focus. It remains to be seen whether the continued involvement of western institutions will make a discernable difference in Afghani educational practices.

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India Celebrates the Successful Eradication of Polio

Polio PosterIndia has successfully completed three years without any newly diagnosed cases of poliomyelitis anywhere in the country. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to  certify India as a polio-free country in March. Due to India’s size and its dense population of 1.2 billion people, polio eradication had seemed like a nearly impossible goal. This impressive success will inspire the country as it works to address other diseases that continue to affect its people.

In 1995, more than 50,000 children contracted polio in India yearly. While as recently as 2009, India reported more than half of the world’s cases of polio infection, less than two years later, on January 13, 2011 the country recorded its last case of the virus.

“After this historic victory of humankind where millions of lives have been saved through tireless efforts of many, we have to take care of neighbours also. We should commit ourselves to creating a polio-free world,” declared President Pranab Mukherjee.

The poliomyelitis virus spreads readily especially in unsanitary conditions. It mostly affects young children, with the majority of them experiencing symptoms of fever, muscle stiffness and pain, vomiting and lethargy. Additionally, one in 200 infected children will suffer from an irreversible paralysis that leads to death in 5 to 10% of cases.

India achieved eradication through several health initiatives that targeted poor and marginalized populations throughout the country. This included an aggressive vaccination campaign that sent more than 2 million healthcare workers throughout the country to deliver vaccines to almost every child under the age of five years old. Additionally, the country developed a highly effective integrated disease surveillance system which monitors for and responds to the outbreak of disease. The Indian government is hoping to use the procedures, policies and programs they developed to deal with polio as a model to help the country combat other devastating disease such as measles, diphtheria and pertussis which are targeted by India’s Universal Immunization Program.

According to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “our success in eradicating polio has made us more confident of achieving our objectives of full immunisation against preventable diseases, universal healthcare and strengthening of primary healthcare infrastructure to address the needs of the most under-developed societies.”

In 1998, Ministers of Health from every WHO member nation met at the World Health Assembly and set the goal to eradicate poliomyelitis globally. Polio was endemic to  125 countries at that time. Now with India’s success, polio only remains endemic in the three countries of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“India has shown the world that there is no such thing as impossible. This is likely the greatest lesson, and the greatest inspiration for the rest of the world,” stated Margaret Chan, head of the WHO.

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