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
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.
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