“We will do whatever it takes to educate our children, even if it means selling our livestock and farms,” said Indra Bahadur Chepang, 43, a farmer with four children in Supar village, in the Shaktikhor Village Development Committee (VDC) area of Chitwan District, nearly 300km southwest of the capital, Kathmandu.
In 2001, when the last census took place, just over 52,000 Chepangs were recorded, but activists say their numbers have nearly doubled since then. The Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities lists 59 indigenous groups in Nepal, comprising just over 37 percent of the country’s 30 million inhabitants.
The Chitwan branch of the Nepal Chepang Association (NCA), an NGO formed by Chepang rights activists, says the literacy rate is barely 23 percent among the close to 90,000 Chepangs in 54 VDCs - in Chitwan, Dhading, Gorkha, Makwanpur, Lamjung and Tanahu districts - against a national average of 40 percent, according to Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Food insecurity is a chronic problem. Most Chepangs are subsistence farmers, living from hand to mouth, and depend on the region’s two annual harvests, each lasting three months. Over 80 percent are under the poverty line, which means they survive on less than US$1 per day, the NCA reported.
“Extreme poverty and the remoteness of their habitat are the reasons for low literacy rates among the Chepang families,” said Gopal Prasad Bhandari, a senior official of the District Education Office in the Bharatpur municipality of Chitwan District.
He said the government is working to provide education to Chepang children, but Chepang parents and activists say little is being done, and this is evidenced by the lack of education infrastructure on the ground. Most villages in the area have only a primary school, forcing children to walk three to four hours each day to reach secondary schools.
Most of the time when children reach schools, they are already too exhausted and hungry because they are unable to eat in the morning, and unable to study after they reach home,” said Purna Puri, principal of Chattramukhi Secondary School in Milan Bazar.
“We constantly worry that the children will drop out because they are always tired when they reach home and don’t have energy to concentrate on their studies,” said Ram Chandra Chepang, a farmer whose two sons walk four hours each day to school and back.
In response, the government has established a hostel exclusively for Chepang children, with free food and lodging so that they don’t have to walk from their homes each day. But the school has space for only 40 children, while there are over 1,000 Chepang children in Shaktikhor alone.
This small initiative by the local district education office has helped nearly 75 Chepang children, including 22 girls, to graduate in the past 10 years in Shaktikhor. “But that is not enough for the rest of the children who will be deprived of their education. The government has to do more,” said activist Manju Chepang.
According to government officials, the situation in Chepang communities is dire and more programmes are needed to ensure schooling opportunities for children. “We are working towards building more secondary schools in the remote villages. Our plans are underway,” Bhandari said.
But when that will actually happen remains unclear.
“The situation of the Chepang families is very bleak and I constantly worry about its impact on the children’s education. They desperately need help,” said Evelyn Varke, principal of Navodaya School in the Ramnagar area, 20km from Shaktikhor VDC.
The school was started by missionaries from India specifically for Chepang children, but it cannot enrol more than 200 students. Over 350 applications are received from parents each year, but only 35 can be accepted.
“We want to help more children but we don’t have enough space,” Varke said, adding that more NGOs and the government are needed in this effort.