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Kidnappings widen gender gap


As conflict in Nepal escalates, the abduction of pupils and teachers by Maoist rebels, school closures, and the displacement of many children from their villages, mean that the Himalayan kingdom is unlikely to achieve the goal of getting as many girls as boys into school, according to Unicef, the United Nations children's fund.

Nepal has one of the lowest ratios in Asia of girls to boys in school.

Without more girls attending, universal primary education will not be achieved by 2015. But even advances in boys' education are being pushed back as children are forced to leave their villages.

"Charity-run shelters in Kathmandu have been overwhelmed since the beginning of this year," said a spokeswoman for Watchlist on Children in Armed Conflict, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals. "Where shelters once housed ten boys and girls, they now have 90 to 95 displaced children," she said. Only a few can continue their education.

The coalition of civic groups said in a recent report, Caught in the Middle, that the conflict had eroded fragile gains in literacy as conditions for all Nepali children continued to deteriorate.

"The districts racked by insurgency are the ones with the widest gender gap," said Samphe Lhalungpa of Unicef Nepal. "In a climate of uncertainty, parents do not want to send their children to school. In remote areas such as Umla, all kids are afraid to come to school. They fear they will be abducted and recruited as 'full-timers' for the Maoists. It certainly has a chilling effect." Children are forced to act as porters, informants and fighters for the rebels.

The situation has worsened in recent months as the insurgency has spread from the mountainous north to the Terai or southern plains, which already had the lowest proportion of girls in school. Child marriage for girls as young as 11 is becoming more common, particularly in the Terai, said monitoring groups. After the rebels abduct a girl for indoctrination, she is unlikely to be "marriageable", Watchlist said. "Some parents withdraw their daughters from school and marry them at a younger age to prevent this happening."

Ms Lhalungpa said Unicef is focusing on getting children into school, particularly girls in 12 Terai districts where large numbers fail to attend for social and cultural reasons.

The Maoists have forced many private schools to close and have requisitioned some government schools as barracks. Schools have been bombed and attacked. This has caused severe overcrowding in the remaining schools, reducing the quality of education. Teachers are also harassed, abducted and forced to pay part of their salary to the rebels.

Attempts by Unicef to declare schools "Zones of Peace" have been hard to realise, Ms Lhalungpa said. "You don't guarantee the safety of schools by putting a guard at the gates; you achieve it through consensus on all sides."

Save the Children estimates that more than 150,000 children have been affected by the insurgency. Since the conflict began eight years ago, 286 children have been killed, 4,000 displaced and 2,000 orphaned.

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