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Himal is one of eight children in a family struggling to make ends meet. To supplement the meagre earnings produced by the family's small corn harvest, Himal's father spends half of the year away from home, working as a porter.

Like many other boys in the districts of eastern Nepal, Himal used to help his father by carrying loads while his mother and sisters stayed behind to take care of the farm. Making a living took priority over education for the Magar family and Himal only went to school for about a week.

As the influence of the Maoist rebels seeking to overthrow the Nepalese monarchy in Udayapur grew stronger, Himal's father became increasingly worried about his son's future. Initially, the rebels had tried to entice young boys like Himal to join the revolution. But they soon became bolder in their demands and, under the 'one family one child' policy, they required each household to bequeath one teenage child for the people's army.

In order to save the then 14-year-old Himal from being forcibly recruited by the rebels, his father sent him to Biratnagar, the second largest city in Nepal. There, Himal became a domestic worker, taking care of his employer's cows and cleaning his house for US$7 a month.

Sending children to work in the city has been a long-standing practice among poor Nepalese families living in rural areas. However, since the beginning of the political conflict in 1996, there has been a sharp increase in this trend. Parents hope that the urban areas will keep their children safe from the rebels, afford them better earnings, and give them a chance at an education.

While Himal was able to evade recruitment by the rebels by coming to Biratnagar, going to school seemed like an impossible dream until a representative from the Forum for Human Rights and Environment convinced his employer to send him to an urban out-of-school programme.

The Forum reaches out to underprivileged children, especially domestic child workers, with nonformal education. They send Forum's staff to comb the neighbourhoods of Biratnagar and identify working children who are out of school. The next step is convincing the children's employers to send them to a two-hour daily class. The urban out-of-school programme is an intensive course consisting of two 10-month sessions during which the children learn the basics of reading, writing and math. Once they complete the programme they are mainstreamed into regular schools, usually at the fifth or sixth grade level.

In addition to a formal education, the children also attend domestic child workers' clubs, have access to books and television, participate in dances and theatre and learn about their rights.

These days, Himal manages all his cow-hand duties, goes to class and also attends his club activities. Himal's face visibly lights up when he is with his friends. He has just completed his first 10 months of education and is already reading and writing and doing basic addition and subtraction. He is looking forward to studying more and joining school, and dreams of becoming a banker.

Himal, it turns out, is also a performer. A play that he and other children from the child workers' club prepared for the International Day Against Child Labour won them first place in a competition organized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Biratnagar. Last summer, he was selected to be one of five teenagers representing Nepal in the Young People's Festival in South Korea, where he performed traditional Nepali dances and met other young people from 32 countries.

Most other Nepalese children are not as fortunate as Himal. Only 65 per cent of children enrolled in primary school complete a fifth grade education and just 31 per cent enroll in secondary school.

Social exclusion and poor quality of education create a nexus that keeps the children of the poorest families out of schools. Over a third of Nepalis live on less than $1 a day so even though primary education is free, many parents don't have the money to buy school uniforms, books and stationary for their children.