The Power of Lifelong Learning

By Sanju Thapa Magar, Chief Executive Officer, Ageing Nepal

Illiteracy is one of the biggest challenges older people in Nepal face today. Up until fairly recently, academic institutions were limited and girls’ education was considered taboo. It wasn’t until 1953 that the government of Nepal initiated plans to build a national education system and achieve universal education. Consequently, the vast majority of people who came of age during or before this period never learned to read.  According to Nepal’s national census statistics, illiteracy among people age 14 and over in 1952 stood at a staggering 90% for men and 99.4% for women.

Today, literacy is sometimes taken for granted—we just assume it’s a given—but for most people in Nepal who are age 60 and above, it’s a privilege that for the most part has been out of reach. For Nepal’s older population, illiteracy prevents participation in almost every area of daily life. Imagine trying to drive, use a smartphone, or apply for a credit card without knowing how to read. The aging of Nepal’s illiterate population has also given rise to new kinds of social and economic challenges. For example, most older people have no choice but to depend on their family, even for small tasks that if it weren’t for being illiterate they could otherwise do themselves. Dependency, however, can open the door to exploitation and as such, we now see growing cases of elder abuse, often perpetrated by family members. Between 2011 and 2018, there were 1,311 cases of abuse reported in Nepal among people over the age of 60. Elder abuse, however, is widely recognized as an underreported issue. The World Health Organization estimates that only 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse is reported globally. If this rate of underreporting was applied to Nepal, that would mean an estimated 30,000 older people have actually suffered from abuse and violence within the last 7 years without any form of support or recourse.

Education is so crucial, not just as a pathway toward economic advancement, but also for well-being in our later years. For those who did not have education opportunities in their youth, it’s all the more important to ensure lifelong learning opportunities are accessible. The issue has been recognized under Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. While some strides have been made to increase access to lifelong learning in Asia—for example, the Chinese government has funded older people “colleges” that offer courses ranging from digital literacy to dance—but for the most part, it has yet to be recognized as a significant priority in national and global development agendas. In Living, Not Just Surviving, HelpAge International’s latest report in preparation for the 10th meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on Aging, older people indicate that opportunities to learn are limited. Some older people even reported learning opportunities denied to them because they were viewed as too old to learn.

In Nepal, the right to an education is codified in the 2015 Constitution, specifically access to basic education for every citizen (article 31, part 3). Likewise, the government has implemented policies that cover diverse areas of education from family literacy programs to projects that support community schools. However, most of these efforts do not explicitly include older people and no policy or programs are specifically targeted to the educational needs of older people.

Ageing Nepal’s Contribution towards SDG4 for Older People

Seeing this gap in available lifelong learning opportunities, Ageing Nepal, a HelpAge global network partner, started a Basic Literacy Class (BLC) for older people in 2016. The project, with support from the UN NGO Committee on Ageing in New York, was piloted with a class of 30 students age 60 and above. Since then, we’ve added three more classes, reaching 120 older people, mostly older women, across Kathmandu. Since the class was set up, Ageing Nepal has made the following progress:

  • We’ve developed a textbook with a curriculum specially designed for older people in the local language Devnagari under the guidance of Dr. Helen Abadzi, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. The book was based on primary research that considers the cognitive capabilities and needs of older people.
  • Cognitive testing administered at the end of the class evaluates older people’s learning of math and reading. Ageing Nepal also gave the students vision tests to understand if they needed eyeglasses or other assistance to be able to learn. The data collected provides evidence for the importance of ongoing literacy classes that reinforce what older people have learned.
  • The learnings from the Basic Literacy Class have informed Ageing Nepal’s advocacy campaigns that raise awareness about older people’s right to education. The impact of the pilot project, for example, provided strong evidence for why reducing illiteracy among older people must be prioritized in public policies and programs. Ageing Nepal continues to observe international awareness days to draw attention to older people’s right to lifelong learning through the International Day of Education and International Literacy Day.

Although we’ve made significant strides over the past three years, this is really just the beginning. The majority of older people in Nepal are still suffering from the impacts of illiteracy.  Ageing Nepal calls for not only the expansion of affordable, quality learning opportunities for older people but also for greater collaboration between government, civil society, NGOs, the private sector, and local communities on realizing lifelong learning for all.

Participation in the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing

Each year the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) convenes in New York to discuss ways to enhance and protect the human rights of older people. This year, the 10th session of the OEWG will be held from 15 to 18 April with the theme of “Education, life-long learning, skills, and capacity-building.” This is in line with the theme of this year’s UN High-Level Political Forum: “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.” Ageing Nepal along with HelpAge and other global network members are advocating to ensure that older people—their needs and their contributions—are recognized when reviewing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, especially when it comes to reducing inequality, ensuring access to education and lifelong learning, promoting inclusive economic growth, and providing access to justice for all.

Making sure the world’s growing population of older people have the knowledge and tools to maintain their health, security, and dignity is essential for inclusive sustainable development. At OEWG, country representatives will share best practices and discuss legal frameworks that can help enhance education, training, and lifelong learning, and capacity-building for older people. Ageing Nepal is urging the Government of Nepal to participate. We have submitted a petition as well as an invitation letter to Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens, demanding their participation in OEWG. Ageing Nepal will also have a representative there to participate. As long as we’re living, we can and should have opportunities to learn. Join us to ensure everyone can access education and skill-building, regardless of age.

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