STRICTLY LEARN­ING

Her life has been de­fined by hard work and op­por­tu­nity. But on a re­cent trip to Nepal, Laura Whit­more re­alised how the good for­tune of where she was born has im­pacted on the choices avail­able to her. ‘Don’t for­get us’, the chil­dren of Nepal pleaded with t

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - PICTURE OF HEALTH -

TWO things have de­fined my life so far hard work and op­por­tu­nity. It’s dif­fi­cult to know which of those things has been the more im­por­tant. For the young peo­ple I met in Nepal this sum­mer, op­por­tu­ni­ties are hard to come by, and the detri­men­tal ef­fect that will have on their fu­ture is all too clear.

Long be­fore

Strictly Come Danc­ing, I’m a Celebrity;

or way back be­fore the Brits, the Baf­tas and MTV, I re­mem­ber be­ing ab­so­lutely cer­tain that I could carve a ca­reer for my­self in tele­vi­sion. Ini­tially, I had wanted to study act­ing, and I then con­tem­plated jour­nal­ism. Con­vinc­ing my dad that a job in the cre­ative in­dus­try was a le­git­i­mate ca­reer was an­other thing, and study­ing for a BA in jour­nal­ism at DCU was a happy medium.

But that ed­u­ca­tion was just a jumpin­goff point. What has re­ally brought me to where I am to­day is ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment. Yet hav­ing that spring­board of knowl­edge has re­ally stood to me. I’ve al­ways be­lieved that if I worked hard enough to fol­low my dream, I could make it hap­pen. My re­cent trip to visit earthquake sur­vivors in Nepal, with Unicef and the EU’s emer­gency hu­man­i­tar­ian fund Echo, forced me to con­front an­other truth it wasn’t just ded­i­ca­tion and com­mit­ment that helped me achieve my dream, it was also good for­tune. What I learned when I went back to school in Nepal was that my life has been hugely in­flu­enced by where I was born.

When an earthquake struck Nepal in April, 2015, over 8,000 schools were wiped out in 45 sec­onds. That’s all the schools in Ire­land: gone, twice over. The ef­fect of that is over­whelm­ing, es­pe­cially for a coun­try that is al­ready strug­gling. All of the re­search sug­gests that if chil­dren af­fected by emer­gen­cies, such as nat­u­ral dis­as­ter or con­flict, fall out of ed­u­ca­tion, they are more likely to be re­cruited as child sol­diers, to be mar­ried off as child brides, or to end up in forced labour. That’s be­fore we even talk about the im­pact of never reach­ing their full po­ten­tial has for them per­son­ally, and for their com­mu­ni­ties and economies.

The teenagers I met in Nepal were all am­bi­tious. They all want ca­reers. They saw world-class pro­fes­sion­als in ac­tion as their coun­try tried to deal with the trauma of nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Now they dream of be­com­ing doc­tors, civil en­gi­neers, so­cial work­ers and aid work­ers. But I will never for­get the si­lence that fell over a room in a Kathmandu slum when 16-year-old Kopila broke down in front of me and a group of her friends, ad­mit­ting that, be­cause of where she lives, she will likely never achieve her dream of be­com­ing a doc­tor.

As I sat there and tried to mo­ti­vate her and her class­mates, telling them that any dream is pos­si­ble, I felt sick in my stom­ach. Kopila was right; she doesn’t have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties that I had, be­cause of some­thing she had no con­trol over the coun­try in which she was born.

Ev­ery­thing I saw in Nepal un­der­lined for me the im­por­tance of pri­ori­tis­ing ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren who be­come caught up in emer­gen­cies. We are used to think­ing about pro­vid­ing wa­ter, shel­ter and medicine in crises, but put­ting ed­u­ca­tion at the top of that list is go­ing to re­quire a mind shift. Cur­rently, only 2pc of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid goes to cri­sis ed­u­ca­tion. The EU spends 4pc on ed­u­ca­tion in emer­gen­cies, and would like to see others do the same.

Nepal has al­ways faced chal­lenges, some not too dis­sim­i­lar to chal­lenges faced in Ire­land do­mes­tic abuse, al­co­holism and forced labour are com­mon themes I heard about as I trav­elled through Sind­hu­pal­chowk District, one of the ar­eas worst af­fected by the earthquake. Those chal­lenges are caused by poverty and the dif­fi­culty of liv­ing in ‘a ver­ti­cal coun­try’. And while this beau­ti­ful coun­try, rich in nat­u­ral re­sources but poor in eco­nomic terms, is do­ing its best to mod­ernise, that devel­op­ment was kicked back sev­eral years by dis­as­ter.

It was well over a year on from the 2015 earthquake when I ar­rived in Nepal, but what I re­alised pretty quickly was that

Na­tional Cam­paign Am­bas­sador for #Emer­gen­cyLes­sons, Laura Whit­more, in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the begin­ning of her re­cent field trip with Unicef to as­sess the dev­as­ta­tion the 2015 earthquake caused to schools there

this emer­gency is far from over.

One-third of the 9,000 peo­ple who lost their lives were chil­dren. Homes, health posts and schools were ru­ined; mil­lions of peo­ple were forced from their homes. That sit­u­a­tion was ex­ac­er­bated by po­lit­i­cal ten­sions in the re­gion and a win­ter of petrol and gas short­ages, which forced even more peo­ple from their homes.

Parts of the coun­try re­main at high risk of an­other earthquake. Unicef has been work­ing in Nepal for 40 years. They view the threat to be so real, the first thing the team did at the air­port was to give me a whis­tle to carry in my pocket. At first, I laughed. The sit­u­a­tion was so alien to me. But it was no joke. I was in­structed to use it to call for help, in the event of a quake. That might seem over-the-top, but in fact I did ex­pe­ri­ence an af­ter­shock while I was in Nepal. For­tu­nately for me, I was mak­ing

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