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Improving Islamic schools, increasing possibilities for Nepalese girls

©UNICEF/2008/ Yeo
Mahedjaha Atiqa, 16, is a student at Islamia Smuhik Adhyan, one of the hundreds of madrasas in Kapilvastu that plan to integrate themselves into the formal school system.

By Sonia Yeo

KAPILVASTU, Nepal, 5 August 2008 – Mr. Rakesh Srivastav, the district education officer of Kapilvastu, in the Terai region of Nepal, is on a mission.  Over the next years, he wants to integrate the 200 Islamic schools in his district, known as madrasas, into the formal school system.

Currently, when children graduate from madrasas in Nepal, explained the education officer, the government does not recognize their degree, because the madrasas do not follow the formal government curriculum. With limited alternatives for pursuing further studies, other than moving to India or Middle Eastern countries where Muslim universities are available, most girls are finished with their studies at the secondary level.

“While boys have the choice to study at either formal schools or madrasas,” says Mr. Srivastav, “girls can only go to madrasas.”

Mr. Srivastav began his campaign one year ago. “Initially we met with resistance from the madrasas,” he says, “but they were also curious to learn what the government could offer them.”

Each school that agreed to register for discussions with the government received a grant of US$8,500. Moreover, the district education office submitted a proposal to develop a separate curriculum for madrasas to the Ministry of Education and is pending approval. This adapted curriculum will include math, science, geography, English, and Urdu, the basic teaching language in madrasas.

Teacher shortage
Islamia Smuhik Adhyan is one of the more receptive madrasas approached by Mr. Srivastav, with its school management committee searching for ways to better equip their 275 girls for life after the madrasa.

 “There is a teacher shortage in our institute,” says General Secretary Mr. Hifjur Rahman, “so we are willing to adopt the formal curriculum if the government provides us with teachers – especially female teachers.”

The shortage of female teachers is a district-wide problem. Only 23 per cent (233 out of 995) of primary school teachers in Kapilvastu are female; at the secondary level, the figure drops to 4 per cent (6 out of 140).

“Girls are not moving on to secondary and higher education to become teachers,” says Mr. Srivastav. “The lack of female teachers means there are no role models for the girls.”

And so the cycle continues. Some of the incentives supported by development agencies to promote girls’ education in the region, a major priority of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), include the provision of scholarships to girls, especially from disadvantaged communities, and non-formal education, which include literary and post-literacy classes, for those out of school.

Improving pedagogy, encouraging higher education
The Islamia Smuhik Adhyan school management committee also recognizes that the math and English taught in their institutes are of relatively poor quality, and they would welcome the government’s help in improving them.

“With good quality math and science the school would be much better,” says Mr. Rahman. “Our girls could go to university in Nepal and become doctors, engineers, et cetera.  We are a progressive madrasa. We want to build a strong foundation for our girls, so there are no barriers for them.”

Ms. Mahedjaha Atiqa, 16, is a student who may not reap the benefits of integration. Once she turns eighteen, her family expects her to get married, or else become a “burden” to her parents.

“This is a golden opportunity for us to study here,” says Ms. Atiqa. “After getting married, it may be difficult to get permission from the husband to continue studying.”

The integration of the madrasas into the education system is still in the early stages; only 9 out of the 200 have started to implement the government curriculum.  But if Mr. Srivastav has his way, Nepal’s madrasas will make remarkable leap forward in ensuring that girls such as Ms. Atiqa are provided as many educational opportunities as boys.


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UNICEF Communications Specialist Sonia Yeo relates her visit to a madrasa in Nepal, where she talked with some of the female students.
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