Henrietta H Fore: A nation’s most valuable asset is its children, and they are what countries need to invest in.UNICEF’s executive director on areas where Nepal needs to focus and the organisation’s work in those realms.
UNICEF has been working in Nepal since 1964. In its more than 50 years in the country, the organisation has focused on championing the rights of children, especially those from the most vulnerable groups. Henrietta H Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, is currently in Nepal to participate in Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Global Gathering, which is being held in Kathmandu from November 3-6. Fore spoke with Tsering Ngodup Lama on the many areas that the organisation is working on in Nepal, from climate change and nutrition to mental health and improving the quality of education.
The following interview has been condensed for clarity.
Even though Nepal doesn’t contribute much to global greenhouse gas emissions, its fragile ecosystem is extremely vulnerable to climate change. In the last few years, we have seen erratic rainfall and severe weather patterns, all of which have affected agriculture. How do you think Nepal can better prepare to lessen the negative impacts of climate change on food and nutrition security?
During the Scaling Up Nutrition Global Gathering, there will be a lot of emphasis on the impact of climate change on agricultural production, and it will be very good to carry the discussion forward here in the country. Nepal has made significant progress on stunting reduction through nutrition-specific interventions and social protection measures, both of which very much targeted families with children under the age of five. The current Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan that the Nepal government has developed with development agencies is not limited to nutrition-specific interventions. The plan also includes several interventions on other related sectors, including agriculture.
Providing children with 21st-century skills to compete in the 21st-century economy is an area that UNICEF is focusing strongly on. In a country like Nepal, where there is a huge quality gap between government and private schools, how do you think we can ensure that students, regardless of private or government schools, have access to quality education?
Education, at its root, has a lot of components. One of them is early education. Families have to realise that children between the ages of three and five need to be engaged with their mind and body in a way that results in a learning experience.
In primary education, one needs a relevant modern curriculum and competent teachers to ensure that children get the fundamentals of learning, which is being able to read, write and do mathematics.
In secondary education, it is essential to keep students engaged. If students find learning boring or they feel that they are not learning anything, they will lose interest in going to school. Many students tell us that they lose interest in secondary school, so the key is to make children excited about attending school.
Modernising the education system and connecting it with work is essential in today's world. There are 1.8 billion young people in the world today, making youth the largest demography in the world. We aim to ensure that the country's youth get the best education so that they can compete equally with youth from the world over.
The current frontier that we all share is the concern for quality of education. The investment parents and communities make in sending their children to school don't get paid off because the students do not get relevant education. UNICEF, as well as other partners, are working with the government through the education sector strategy. The work that we think needs continuation is coordination between public and private sector education. We are fully aware that a lot of the communities resort to private sector schools, which are costly but ensure better quality. But the private education sector is out of reach for the most vulnerable segment of the population.
The most important players in providing quality education are quality teachers. While a lot can be done at the policy level, providing guidelines and materials, if we do not have good teachers who themselves are well educated and who have a passion for education and to transfer knowledge, a lot of work at the technical level will go to waste. So having good teachers who are also willing to be placed in locations where they are needed the most is a challenge because teacher retention rates in rural areas is another challenge. So efforts have to be rolled out to work directly with local governments to get more teachers from those locations and provide them with the necessary training. These teachers will then have a stake in being the providers of education for the children in their respective localities.
High drop-out rates in schools is another pressing issue in Nepal. Children often leave school to contribute to their families financially. Many young girls are pulled out of school to get married. How is UNICEF working to ensure that children not only get to attend school but also complete schooling?
In some countries, young people go door-to-door in villages and talk to parents who have taken their children out of school. They inform the parents of the importance of education and urge them to send their children back to school. There are also some radio programmes where parents talk to parents about the importance of keeping children in school, and how education makes children more productive and allows them to contribute to society.
In Nepal, we have different programmes aimed at preventing child marriage. One of our main focuses is to have girls who have dropped out to go back to school. We also provide out-of-school alternative education and life skills programmes like Girls’ Access to Education (GATE) and Rupantaran to address these issues. The focus though is not just on girls. We want both boys and girls enrolling in these programmes.
Coming to the larger poverty eradication challenge, we are working with a number of partners to support the integration of the existing social protection measures in Nepal. The idea is to really focus on the most vulnerable groups to enable them to move out of poverty and not have them rely on support mechanisms forever. This will allow them to make sure that their children stay in school and that they have the required healthcare and that stunting is reduced.
Where do you think Nepal stands when it comes to child rights?
Nepal signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in September 1992, making it one of the first countries to do so. I believe the country is very close to recommitting to it. We hope to get a recommitment from most nations in the world by November 20, which is World’s Children’s Day. One of the things that we have learned is that this generation has a voice and they want this voice to be heard. The focus for the next 30 years should be on realising these rights, and not just advocating for them. There should be some concrete programmes in place that will change things for young people. A nation’s most valuable asset is its children, and they are what countries need to invest in. Countries that don’t do that won’t have great futures as nations.
Lack of access to clean drinking water and the prevalence of water-borne diseases are pressing matters in the country. How is UNICEF working in Nepal and with the government in these two areas?
Access to clean drinking water is critical, and it is one of the quickest ways to improve the physical health of people. Our initial focus was on pushing for an end to open defecation, but now we are moving to a concept where it's not just sanitation but also creating water-safe communities. The focus is to help rural communities take control of their water sustainability and safety. In urban settings, our focus has mainly been on cholera prevention.
What is UNICEF doing in the country to address mental health?
When it comes to mental health, our primary goal is to drive awareness, to keep the conversation on mental health going, and to reduce stigmas attached to it. We have rolled out several programmes on mental health in many countries, and they have worked very well in dramatically reducing issues around mental health. We would like to roll out those programmes here as well.