When she founded the UNICEF ESCP London Society, ESCP Master in Management student Anna Lelorieux made the choice to become a loudspeaker for children's rights and to make our world a better, safer and healthier place for all.
Anna has just spent four months volunteering with children in Nepal, where she visited local schools, met with children and trained teachers from the most marginalised communities.
We are proud to share Anna's experience, and to support all our students who choose to dedicate their time and energy to such worthwhile projects.
Volunteering with children in Nepal was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. It is hard to describe the adventure and the feelings I had throughout this period, but between those lines I hope I can share some lessons I learned. I volunteered with children, but my mission was focused on Early Childhood Development Centres (ECDs), working together with VIN (Volunteers Initiatives Nepal).
Early Childhood Development Centres are classes for kids aged from three to five years old, often divided into: Nursery, LKG (Lower Kindergarten) and UKG (Upper Kindergarten). Early childhood is the most significant period of learning for every human being, establishing the cognitive, emotional and social foundation upon which they build their future. A 2014 nationwide survey on child development in Nepal concluded that children aged three to five engaged in Early Childhood Education Programs were seventeen times more likely to be on track in their introductory early learning and number skills, even after excluding the effects of numerous socioeconomic factors.
However, Nepal’s national education budget allocation to pre-primary education is less than three percent, severely impacting the development opportunities for children in the early stages of their education. Besides, people in Nepal have limited awareness of the importance of Early Childhood Education and limited access to resources. Institutions such as local schools become nearly inaccessible for many local people due to the scattered nature of rural villages. As a result, most children spend their early childhood at home, without play material, acquiring little or no communicative or social skills. Since 2005, the VIN voluntary service for childcare has been very impactful in the rural communities of Nepal, and that is where I decided to get involved and help them make a long-term difference.
When I arrived in January, my priorities were to assess the conditions of the ECDs nearby Kathmandu. In the last two years, the country has faced many natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and floods, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the conditions of schools have worsened, and my work and mission have focused on assessing the states of those ECDs after such a prolonged closure.
I visited a total of 16 ECDs in the Kathmandu region, some of them in a critical state due to the lack of monitoring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those ECDs hadn't been visited by NGOs for a long while; some materials had disappeared, carpets were ruined, windows were broken and, even worse, teachers simply didn't seem to care about quality education.
During this first month, my tasks were to check the safety of the room and whether there were leaks, breaches in walls, or any other safety related issues. I also aimed to record all learning materials and resources available, e.g. toys, ABC boards and books. It was also important to assess whether children had access to drinkable water and sanitation, and unfortunately they often did not. Indeed, I have seen schools without toilets and children without proper food or drinkable water.
From the age of three onwards, kids need to awaken. This cannot be done with books only, and also needs quality teaching. Despite the “low-standard” conditions of schools near the country’s capital, I was very surprised to see how smart and disciplined Nepali children were. While going through the surveys with teachers, I have always aimed to interact with kids, speaking to them and trying to evaluate how “skilled” they are. I attempted to identify the gaps and see how quality education could be improved. Unfortunately, I soon realised that many teachers were not skilled at all, and that the interest in teaching derives from an interest in money only.
After completing my first mission, I took a different path and decided to get involved with ECD teachers and train them in order to raise the standards in the most needed areas, and therefore the most marginalised communities. In mid-February I took the road to the Siddhicharan municipality, a remote area belonging to the Okhaldhunga district, ten hours from Kathmandu by jeep. The Siddhicharan municipality accounts for about 5,300 inhabitants and 25 Early Childhood Development Centres.
In two months, I visited the 25 Early Childhood Development Centres, meeting hundreds of children and people who became brothers and sisters. Everyday my work was to visit schools, walking for between thirty minutes and four hours. I wasn’t alone as a local volunteer was walking with me, supporting me in finding the correct location as well as translating. Her name is Sunita Ghimire, and she became a true friend.
As I said before, ECDs are new in Nepal, and the government doesn’t provide much support. In remote areas such as Siddhicharan, there is no ECD curriculum and some teachers are not qualified or, worse, are illiterate. Together with VIN, I helped implement an “easy” routine in classes. Every day I would spend hours, showing teachers how the curriculum routine works:
- Reading and Language (books, alphabets, songs)
- Large Motor Development (practical games)
- Small Motor Development (mathematics)
Coming to support teachers was very beneficial for both for the teachers and the children. Teachers gained training and guidance, they got to understand the importance of cognitive and physical development as well as creative expression for kids aged three to five.
I did some research beforehand and tried to transfer as much knowledge as I could to help raise awareness in the community. I set the guidelines, reading books, singing songs and playing practical games with children. The teacher would remember the practices and use the curriculum provided for the following days and weeks. On the other hand, children would remember the songs and activities and would ask to play again, regardless of my being there. The success of the teachers’ training originates from the kids’ needs and demands to interact, play, sing and learn with their professor.
I could see a huge improvement in interactions between teachers and children. It was as if a connection was finally emerging between the two, and they were “communicating”. Raising ECDs’ standards in marginalised communities was a challenge but my efforts to improve teachers’ education paid off. Nevertheless, some cultural practices still negatively impact children’s development in Nepal.
In addition to the scarcity of resources and absence of quality education, the Nepalese caste system may also harm children’s development from an early age. Indeed, the traditional system of social stratification applies to everybody, everywhere in Nepal, and thus also in schools. In Nepal, your family name determines which caste you belong to. As of today, children from the lowest caste, the Dalit (“Untouchable”), are sometimes considered as impure and may suffer from classroom segregation, harassment and discrimination.
It is hard to describe my adventure with words. Before leaving for Nepal, I watched documentaries, read books and tried to inform myself as much as I could to adapt to the difficult conditions in marginalised communities. However, it wasn’t what I expected at all. Nepal is an underdeveloped country with a scarcity of resources that is developing in a convoluted political environment that further enlarges the gap between rich and poor. Education was the area I decided to volunteer for, but there is so much to do: women’s empowerment and environmental issues are other major areas of focus.
Natural disasters, undrinkable water, weak healthcare, poor quality education, abuse and high suicide rates of women, child labour, domestic violence, arranged marriages and electricity and water shortages are difficulties I witnessed during my stay.
Although the local population is aware of these problems, international support from volunteers and donors is very much needed and in fact necessary to make things better. I’m proud to say that, for the first time, I didn’t travel to see the change but to make it, and that the mission was a success. I am forever grateful for the time I spent helping children and teachers.
I am forever thankful to the hundreds of kids I met, and for the friends and family I made. I have personally learned a lot and developed my inner self closer to success, health and happiness. The lessons I learned are numerous, but here are the most important ones:
- Enjoy every moment
- Realise how blessed you are for what you have
- Laugh a lot and never forget to smile!