By Sarah Crowe and Rupa Joshi
KATHMANDU, Nepal, 16 April 2009 – In a country that boasts the best views on earth, the Himalayas were covered in a spring haze for the visit of UNICEF's Executive Board members to Nepal last week. But views of another kind left their mark on the members – views from the bottom up and from the top down, and the views of children unafraid to express themselves.
After years of civil strife, Nepal finally moved relatively peacefully from a monarchy to a Maoist democracy during last year's elections, but it faces major challenges. Children's rights, restrictions, disease and poverty are just some of the issues that the society and humanitarian organizations grapple with today.
So for the board members, it was something of an eye-opener to witness how forthright and outspoken many Nepalese children were about their rights.
Children speak their minds
Recently, one of the child clubs that dot the country helped 'rescue' a 14-year-old girl – a fellow student – from a forced marriage to a boy of 17. After weeks of perseverance and persistence, members of the club managed to convince the parents that the children needed to wait until they grew up and finished their studies.
Today, the girl is still in school, the boy is in college and they're still unmarried – no small feat in a region where old traditions die hard and there is the highest percentage of child marriages in the world; nearly half of all South Asian women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they turned 18.
On other issues too, the children spoke their minds on how they promote child rights and work with local non-governmental organizations to channel young voices into consultations on Nepal's new constitution. The children had no compunction, either, about telling Executive Board members what they, too, could do to promote child rights in Nepal.
"Please tell the officials in Kathmandu that we need more schools and health posts for the children in Tanahun district," Pankaj Timsina, 14, told the visiting delegates from UNICEF. "When you meet them, please also tell them that education must be made free and compulsory for all children in the country," Pankaj added.
"It was heart-warming to see children boldly speaking their minds without fear or hesitation in front of strangers and adults," said board delegate Marcus Weidling of Germany. "They spoke about their hopes, their problems, and explained to us all the amazing work that they have managed to do."
In Pumdi Bhumdi, Kaski district, young Manish Sunar recounted how a school-led campaign was making the village free of open defecation. Nepal has one of the highest levels of open defecation in the world, with 61 per cent of the population still lacking access to toilets. Diarrhoea, mostly caused by poor sanitation, is one of the major killers of children in Nepal.
"It was amazing to see the level of community participation, especially with children involved in building safer and healthier environments – like the construction of latrines – as well as in promoting the importance of washing hands and drinking safe water," said board delegate Allison Booker of the Bahamas.
The six-member team from the UNICEF Executive Board was in Nepal from 30 March to 8 April. The delegation included representatives from the Bahamas, China, Ethiopia, Germany, the Russian Federation and Switzerland, as well as Executive Board Secretary Kirsi Madi.
To get a view from the top level, the board members were briefed by the ministers and senior officials from the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, and the Ministry of Health, about cooperation with UNICEF and issues and challenges facing children and women.
The delegates also met with representatives of civil society and UN agencies, gained insight into how the UN works in Nepal and were updated on the country team's efforts towards UN harmonization and coherence.
During their meeting with officials at UNICEF's Regional Office for South Asia, the Executive Board members – besides learning about how the office functions – were updated about MDG trends across South Asia and the key opportunities and constraints the region faces.
During their visit to the districts of Kaski and Tanahun, the board delegates saw firsthand how UNICEF's partnerships with local governments and NGOs operate at a field level. They also got a firsthand account of UNICEF's various programmes and projects by interacting directly with men, women and children in the villages.
Children's and women's rights
The visitors expressed appreciation for the support provided by UNICEF, through its partners, in providing catch-up classes for child labourers. But they urged UNICEF to do even more, in partnership with other agencies, to ensure that children are not deprived of childhood by having to become wage earners for their families.
"We met children as young as eight who work in hotels, restaurants and sand mines," said board delegate Elena Manfrina of Switzerland. "We urged UNICEF to lobby and advocate even more with the government on the issue of child labour. We talked with the government as well as district and village officials about the importance of treating child labour in a holistic manner, along with education and child protection."
For a view from Nepalese women, the Executive Board members met the Women's Federation and paralegal committee members in Khairenitar and Barbhanjyang villages, Tanahun district, and with women of the Vishwakarma Community organization in Kalika village in Kaski.
Meeting with paralegal committees and district resource groups that provide them with legal advisory services, the board members expressed hope that progress was being made to strengthen protection systems addressing issues of violence, abuse, exploitation and discrimination against children and women.
"What the paralegal committees have been able to do at the micro level for the protection of children and women is exemplary and commendable," said board delegate Yoseph Kassaye of Ethiopia. "Their work needs to be supported so as to strengthen them further and to help protect children from abuse and exploitation. This can serve as an example for other countries."
Nutrition and health concerns
With chronic malnutrition still plaguing half of all Nepalese children, the Executive Board members heard, from a women's community organization in Kaski, how the community has been able to improve the nutrition status of children in their village by demonstrating tools such as a community information board and growth-monitoring charts.
"I was very happy to see the involvement of the whole community in ensuring that children are not malnourished and have the opportunity to grow to their full potential," commented board delegate Changfeng Shao of China. "Ensuring that mothers and children get proper nutrition is vital for a country like Nepal, which is facing major challenges of child survival."
During their visit, the board members learned about the spectrum of health services available in the country, especially for children and women. This activity ranged from a meeting with the Minister of Health in Kathmandu to an account from a Female Community Health Volunteer (FCHV) in Kaski to a visit to the primary health care centre in Dhule Gaunda, Tanahun.
The team was able to learn about how children's deaths are being averted through the work of the FCHVs, through distribution of vitamin A supplements and through routine immunization. The delegation also observed and participated in dispensing oral polio vaccine drops to children at a health care centre as part of a National Immunization Day. In Khairenitar village, the Executive Board members learned about efforts being made in the district towards child-friendly local governance.
UNICEF 'recognized and appreciated'
"What struck me most in the trip is the level of awareness, commitment and dedication of the people, including women and children, in trying to solve their problems by themselves," said the leader of the delegation, Mikhail Savostianov, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN.
"It was impressive," he noted, "to see the level of participation by people in matters that really affect them, whether it is the women in the community organizations, federations or paralegal committees, the children in the schools and child clubs, the teachers in the schools and ECD centres, the engagement of local governments or the involvement of civil society and political party leaders in various activities.
"True, there may be lack of resources and technical capacity," added Mr. Savostianov, "but the energy and optimism I felt from the community level upwards in this country that is transitioning out of a conflict is commendable. It was striking to see how recognized and appreciated UNICEF is at all levels."