The physical and technological difficulties in Bhutan often hinder universal access to basic education for Bhutanese children.
Evaluating literacy classes
"Lunana," Dorji Wangchuk describes a village in north-western Bhutan, "it is neither east nor west. It is the centre of nowhere and now there is snow."
As the sun sets beyond two snow-capped mountains to the east of Damji village in north-western Bhutan, Dorji, a programme officer in the Ministry of Health and Educations Non-Formal Education section, is discussing the itinerary of his trip to evaluate the achievements of UNICEF-supported literacy and numeracy classes in three remote villages. Dorji and his assistants, three high school students employed by the ministry during their holidays, have just hiked three hours to Damji, their first stop on a six-day trip.
Karma Gaylej, the headmaster of the Damji primary school in Bhutans Gasa district who also teaches the classes in the village, nods and smiles at Dorjis comment. He started the Non-Formal Education classes, or NFE classes, in December 1997 in Damji soon after moving to the remote district to teach at the villages primary school.
Tonight, under the glow of solar lanterns, Karma is helping Dorji and his assistants arrange interviews with students who have participated and those who are interested in learning how to read and write in NFE classes. The interviews are part of the first evaluation of the programme since the National Womens Association of Bhutan (NWAB) launched it on a small scale in 1992 and since the Ministry of Health and Education assumed responsibility for the programme in 1994.
Between April and July, Dorji is leading one of two teams travelling to more than 70 of the countrys some 80 centres by car, but mostly by foot, throughout the countrys rural areas, where 85 per cent of the population reside, to conduct the evaluation. The exercise, which UNICEF is funding, is designed to assess the impact of the NFE programme on students and communities and collect information that can help the ministry better tailor the programme to learners and communities needs.
A small part of the evaluation entails modest exams to measure the literacy and numeracy skills of students who have successfully completed the course. A large part of the evaluation entails focus group discussions with these students as well as participating and potential students. This part of the evaluation aims to determine the impact of the programme on students lives, the problems they encountered, the appeal of the class and the topics it covers. The ministry expects to complete the final report on the evaluation by August.
Since 1996, UNICEF has been one of the programmes primary patrons, providing funds for the ministry to hold workshops to train educators and help them develop materials including posters, booklets and card games; printing classroom materials; and furnishing the ministry with vehicles to distribute materials and monitor activities. The agency also has provided many NFE centres with desks, chairs and solar lanterns.
This support is vital in a country with geographic challenges such as a mountainous terrain and a lack of roads, a rudimentary communication and electrical network and a dispersed, predominantly agrarian population.
For 2001, UNICEF plans to provide some US$302,000 to the NFE Programme. The government is providing more than US$60,000 of the budget. Other contributors to the programme include UNESCO and UNFPA.
The NFE course, in Dzongkha, the national language, covers 30 textbooks and is and designed for students to complete within six to 12 months. The books deal with everyday situations and activities and include messages concerning health and hygiene, family planning, agriculture, forestry, and environment. Discussions on these themes help reinforce development activities in these areas. Meanwhile, UNICEF is working with the Ministry to develop more reading materials so graduates can practise their reading and math skills.
All the efforts are to help meet the government and UNICEFs shared goal to enhance the literacy rate in Bhutan by 10 per cent by the year 2000. In 1992, the government estimated the national adult literacy rate at about 54 per cent, and as low as 10 per cent among rural females. This is not a surprising statistic for a country where the majority of children in rural primary schools are the first generation in their families to have access to education and there is a general shortage of trained teachers.
At the primary school in Damji, Dorji and Karma welcomes the gup or village headman, who worked with Karma to establish the NFE centre, a group of participating NFE students and another group interested in enrolling in classes. They separate the groups into different rooms to conduct the discussions. The participating students, four young women and one man, sit cross-legged on the school room floor to answer Dorjis questions about their coursework and its impact on their lives. The young women often hesitate and exchange glances and whispers before answering. They fidget, lean into each other and frequently turn towards the one vocal young woman. The man sits apart from the women, a bit bemused by this interaction.
The government estimates that out-of-school girls and women from rural villages make up some 70 per cent NFE students countrywide. Men are almost always in the minority in these classes. Kencho, the man participating in this discussion, says most men in Damji are either monks or working in government jobs.
Gyem Lham, aged 15, the young women who does most of the talking in this group, says her 16-year-old sister, who goes to school, encouraged her to enrol. Although Gyem says she had wanted to go to school as well, she now spends most of her days working in the fields. She explains her parents decision for her to stay at home was necessary, as the family includes six children. "What Ive learned here has helped me manage when I leave the village, to do things like calculate bus fare and read bus timetables," she says.
Kencho, aged 29, a farmer and father of three children, has used his acquired skills in other ways. He says he now chronicles his daily affairs, accounts for his expenditures and records business dealings with people. He recounts how last winter he prepared a list of things to buy for the planting season before travelling to the stores in Punakha and devised a system to measure his farming inputs and his yields.
In the adjacent classroom, other Damji residents interested in participating in the classes view cards displaying symbols: a skull and crossbones, a red cross, the logo of the national health care system, several clocks displaying different times. The students discuss the meanings of these signs amongst themselves and with the discussion leaders.
Sedon, a woman in this group who is also a village health worker, says she would like to learn how to read and do basic math, to help her do her job and function more independently outside the village. Still, she explains that the amount of work she must do to support her family leaves little time for attending classes.
Although education administrators and gups encourage participation, many people in rural settings face the dilemma of having too much work to make the extra time, Karma explains. He emphasises that communities need to work to overcome this. "This education is very important to the society as a whole as opportunities emerge for women in Bhutan on a large scale and the population has begun electing women representatives to the National Assembly."
This phenomenon coupled with the countrys move towards a more democratic system could strengthen the voice of women in national affairs. In 1998, the King relinquished his role as Head of Government and Chairman of the Council of Ministers, which he traditionally appointed, and granted the National Assembly the authority to elect the Council, which now has full executive powers to elect the Chairman who acts as Head of Government.
Over yak butter tea early the following morning, Karma tells Dorji that the gup in Damji, who is a former monk and served in the National Assembly, strongly supports the communitys and its womens involvement in the NFE courses.
Moments later, Dorji bids Karma farewell and sets off up into the mountains with his three assistants. At the end of their journey lays Lunana, where the school only functions five months of the year due to snow and freezing temperatures. It is another four-day walk away. - By Elizabeth Kramer
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