In the south of Nepal lives the Musahar community, the most marginalised and exploited caste in Nepal, if not the world. In 2016, the non-profit organisation Street Child, which works to help provide an education to the most vulnerable children, took an interest in the situation of the Musahars and conducted a field study lasting several months. Their aim was to launch a vast project to support this community, trapped in the circle of extreme poverty. Usha Limbu, who oversees this ambitious project, agreed to share with us the challenges and successes of this programme.
The birth of the Musahar Project
In 2015, a series of devastating earthquakes hit Nepal, resulting in a million children being taken out of school. It was in this chaotic context and in response to this emergency that Street Child expanded its area of operation in Nepal and worked alongside local partners to bring education to the country’s most affected communities. “Street Child then turned its attention to the Musahar community. The study conducted in 2016 allowed us to meet this population, to understand their needs and the obstacles they face in accessing education,” says Usha.
The Musahar community is one of the most economically and socially deprived in Nepal. The Musahar have historically been the most politically and socially marginalised and economically exploited because of their untouchable status. This status makes them particularly vulnerable and exposed to extreme poverty. Their living quarters are geographically isolated, their villages located in remote areas and away from other communities. “The Musahar have no real territory, they settle in different areas in the south of Nepal and are very often forced to move because of natural disasters,” says Usha.
Finally, the literacy rate of the Musahar community is extremely low, especially for girls, and represents 3.8% compared to 77.5% in the rest of the country. Only 5% of Musahar girls over the age of 11 attend school. The latter are particularly affected by illiteracy because they frequently undergo early marriages and pregnancies and contribute to their families’ expenses and finances through their work. “It is important to mention that access to education is limited by discrimination against children by teachers or other communities and by the language barrier. This is a problem that goes beyond a lack of means or willingness of families to send their children to school.”
The Musahar Girls Support Programme
The field study enabled Street Child to launch a programme in 2018 to accelerate schooling for girls in the Musahar community. It is being implemented in three main phases.
The accelerated learning programme lasts for three to four months and provides child-specific instruction in basic numeracy and literacy. Assessments are carried out alongside the learning to monitor the girls’ progress and literacy levels.
A life skills phase is then organised. The Musahar have to overcome pervasive discrimination and a recurrent lack of information about their civil status, the services (health, education, protection) from which they can benefit, and their fundamental rights. “This stage allows them to recover this essential information and, thanks to this knowledge, to become more involved in family and community decision-making”, explains Usha.
Finally, in the transition to livelihoods phase, Street Child supports Musahar girls aged 14 or older in a business development project to provide them with a means of livelihood and an income that will enable them to break the vicious circle of debt bondage.
“This phase was particularly complex to set up, as the communities live away from most markets and have limited means of communication, no radios, poor internet connection. Street Child then maps the local resources to study and see what kind of business is likely to bring benefits. “Another challenge is the location criteria. Musahar girls need to be able to run their business in a place close to their home, this is essential for them,” continues Usha.
The choice of business is based on activities that the girls know and appreciate, such as sewing and dressmaking. They then attend literacy classes, management and negotiation training, and are provided with the equipment and materials needed for their business.
Family and school support are key to the success of the programme
Local NGOs accompany and work with Street Child during all stages of the programme, especially on the entrepreneurship part. But another key element for the success of the programme is the support and collaboration of the families and the school.
“The majority of families support the idea, although some parents are reluctant. When it comes to setting up micro-enterprises, they are particularly enthusiastic, because it meets a direct need.
Work with schools is also necessary, as the Musahar community frequently experiences discrimination and stigmatisation in this context. Street Child offers training and awareness-raising sessions on inclusive schooling and the development of a caring environment for all children.
“Between 2018 and 2022, we were proud to count 3,385 Musahar girls who benefited from our programme. 792 of these girls have created income-generating businesses.” Beyond these quantitative results, the girls have gained self-confidence and are now more aware and able to respond to gender-based violence. 60% of the Musahar female community has been involved in this project and while some of the progress is not quantifiable, the human benefits are undeniable.
Long-term efforts and commitment
Despite this success, the Musahar community faces a particularly violent period of uncertainty.
March 2020. An apprenticeship programme (first phase) has been underway for two months for Musahar girls, but the health crisis and lockdown meant that classes had to stop.
Several weeks passed before the implementation of distance learning courses.
“The girls and their families had no income or means to meet their basic needs and emergency assistance was provided,” says Usha. Street Child’s focus for several weeks was on food assistance, psychosocial care and the distribution of hygiene kits to families. The mobilisation of donors was particularly strong. “After several weeks of lockdown, classes were able to resume from a distance, but avoiding dropping out of school in such a context is no easy task. The educational team worked hard.”
The Musahar are still suffering the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, even though the situation has improved in recent months (fewer cases, better access to work). “The Musahar community remains poorer and more vulnerable than before the crisis. Times are uncertain but providing quality education and all our support remains our main objective.”
Working for Street Child: interview with Marion Sampéré, president of Street Child France
- Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I have been the president of Street Child France for almost a year now. I was initially working as the organisation’s general secretary. I first discovered Street Child when I was working as a marketing and fundraising intern in Barcelona.
- What made you want to work for Street Child? What is your role in this project?
Education. I have several nephews and nieces and it is unthinkable for me to imagine them without school! As president, I have also learned a lot: my work includes reviewing calls for projects, applying for funding, sending and transferring money abroad and communicating to ensure the visibility of Street Child France. My missions are very varied.
- When and how was Street Child created?
The first project started in 2008 in Sierra Leone. The founders, Tom and Lucinda, had made several humanitarian trips there, at a time when the country was considered the poorest in the world. They were keen to work with local actors on the ground and to act not only on the education and school aspects but also on precariousness, exclusion, sanitary conditions etc., in short on everything that could prevent schooling. The Street Child France adventure began in 2016 when the parent company, Street Child UK, decided to extend its network to reach and raise awareness among another audience in Europe. Street Child now has several branches in Africa, Asia and Europe.
- Can you tell us about Street Child?
Street Child’s objective is simple: to offer every child access to a quality education in good conditions. This means reducing inequalities, not just when it comes to going to school, but improving all the conditions around it.
The organisation has three pillars: education, child protection, and family income development. Each project involves working closely with local organisations and entities.
- What have been the biggest achievements so far?
Street Child works in 16 countries in Africa and Asia. Since 2008, the organisation has helped more than 520,000 children get back to school and thousands of families generate a sustainable income to send their children to school. The organisation is also expanding rapidly in France and other European countries, strengthening Street Child’s global network, reaching out to new audiences and raising more funds for our work.
- Conversely, what were the biggest difficulties or challenges you encountered?
In some countries, the intervention can of course be more complex depending on the political, social or even cultural context. In Nigeria, for example, the political situation is particularly difficult with attacks by the terrorist organisation Boko Haram. Sierra Leone, which is historically Street Child’s first country of intervention, is more familiar territory.
- What about the impact of the health crisis?
In the end, few projects were cancelled because of the health crisis, even if some were significantly delayed, such as the marathon we were supposed to organise in Sierra Leone. Apart from the field aspect, many foundations postponed or redirected their calls for projects. Volunteer labour was harder to find.
The good thing is that we now know how to deal with emergencies better, we anticipate and can put in place a new way of working more quickly.
- What sentence helps or guides you the most in your daily life?
“There are no small actions”. What is important is the intention and the message you want to put into it. For a long time, I thought that to act, you had to have experience in the field. Today I think that the field is essential, but there is also a whole organisation behind it that is important. This starts with the fundraisers who canvass in the street! Everyone can make a contribution.
Photo: Street Child
Story and interview by Manon Philippe for Azickia