Getting real on leaving no one behind: Women’s periods and the SDGs in Nepal
BY Stine Heiselberg | April 19, 2018
Who are Nepal's most vulnerable groups, and how is their vulnerability similar or different from other countries?
This wasn't a rhetorical question for the Inter-Agency Common Feedback Project (CFP), an inter-agency initiative of the UN in Nepal, but a must-know in order to properly structure their priorities for the 2018-2022 UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF). Key in answering this question, was to get in touch directly with those vulnerable groups and to listen to their experiences.
To target the areas where there's a clear gap, we designed a community perception survey that would allow us to fully grasp why certain populations are falling behind in development progress, and most importantly, to help them catch up. We spoke with members of the UNDAF thematic groups from various UN agencies to develop a questionnaire that would also help us amplify existing data sources for future programming efforts.
As a next step, we selected districts by aggregating the Human Development Index (HDI) at the provincial level and identified the provinces with the lowest HDI. Then, we identified districts within those provinces and pulled the data that would reflect as many UNDAF-related areas as possible.
In October last year, we mobilized 30 enumerators across nine districts (Kailali, Achham, Bajura, Muhu, Dailekh, Rukum, Mahottari, Sarlahi, and Rautahat) over the course of two weeks. A total of 1,800 respondents completed the survey. To get our hands on qualitative data, we also held 12 focus group discussions in targeted communities facilitated by team members of the Common Feedback Project. This helped to contextualize quantitative findings and provide greater insight into the survey results.
Making sense of all the data
Once we collected the data, we put on our investigator hats to analyse results and disaggregate overall findings by district, age, gender, ethnicity and occupation. We did this to drill down and pinpoint factors that may influence how people in different regions are experiencing development.
By far, the most effective surveys were the ones administered and analysed without pre-existing bias or predictions, which is what we strived for. The final product was a 39-page infographic style report that breaks down the responses based on focus areas, including detailed analysis of the survey feedback.
Some UN agencies are already focusing more in detail on the results that impact their mandate which could guide their future work.
Debunking cultural misconceptions
One of the things that came up during the surveys is the practice of chhaupadi, through which women are banned from their homes, public areas, temples, and schools during their menstrual periods. According to our findings, this still remains a regular practice even though it was outlawed in 2017.
To contextualize these findings, we held focus group discussions to in Dailekh, a district where only half of the population is literate, and the Human Development Indicators are extremely low. From the focus group discussions, we learned that school teachers often ask female students to stay at home for four days during their periods.
This is a problem because school girls miss up to one fifth of the school year. Beyond this impact on education, the practice of chhaupadi has far reaching implications. A number of women die annually from animal bites, infections, and smoke inhalation as they stay in unsafe and unsanitary shacks during their period.
The good news is that some communities are beginning to understand that this ostracizing practice is damaging and unnecessary. And with collective efforts to raise awareness, this practice can be eliminated. In the western district of Mugu, chaupaddi is now considered a thing of the past, in part, due to the investments at the community level to teach people about the biological aspects of the menstrual cycle and the impacts of excluding women and girls from their communities. In several districts in Nepal, UNFPA and UNICEF are providing life skills education to girls and boys, both in and outside of school. A programme called Rupantaran (which means "transformation") empowers and enables adolescents to become change agents in their communities.
We are committed to giving communities a voice at the table from the very beginning of our planning efforts. The Common Feedback Project team will continue to support the UN team to integrate feedback from communities into their development plans. As part of this effort, we are currently designing a new community perceptions survey to better understand the dynamics of harmful traditional practices such as chaupaddi. The data collected will inform UN joint programmes to eradicate these practices. We will keep you posted on our findings. Check back with us in the next few months!
Viet Nam Engaging with International Human Rights Mechanisms to Achieve Universal Access to Education
March 8, 2014
The most important reason for us to support mother tongue-based bilingual education is to promote social equality in education by creating equal opportunities for ethnic minority children to have access to quality education. - Mr. ViVan Dieu, Director, Research Centre for Ethnic Minority Education, Viet Nam Institute of Educational Sciences.
As a direct result of Viet Nam undergoing the Universal Periodic Review in May 2009, the government invited six Special Procedures mandate holders of the United Nations Human Rights Council to visit Viet Nam. Four Special Procedures visited Viet Nam during 2010-2011, one of whom was the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues in July 2010. During her visit, the Independent Expert on minority issues engaged closely with the United Nations country team, which contributed to ensuring that her recommendations reflected the realities, priorities and challenges in the country.
The recommendations from the Independent Expert proved a valuable tool for guiding and strengthening efforts to move forward on ensuring equitable and inclusive growth in Viet Nam. In particular, her engagement with UNICEF on the issue of bilingual education for children of ethnic minorities resulted in an explicit reference to UNICEF’s work in this area and a recommendation that this approach be supported and expanded in the country. These recommendations added significant weight and credibility to UNICEF’s work on bilingual education, providing UNICEF with an advocacy tool to raise attention and commitment to this approach. Bilingual education has since been recognized by the Ministry of Education as one of the solutions to reducing disparities in access to education.
The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam is a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of Viet Nam. It has an estimated population of 87.8 million people, of which 14.3 percent belong to one of 53 minority ethnic groups.1 Many of these ethnic groups have their own distinct language, religion and cultural identity and live in remote parts of the country. The rest of the population belongs to the majority ethnic group, known as the Kinh.
Over the past two decades, Viet Nam has achieved rapid economic growth and has significantly reduced overall poverty rates from 58.1 percent in 1993 to 14.5 percent in 2008.2 As a result of this growth, Viet Nam attained the status of a middle income country in 2010.3 One of the biggest development challenges that Viet Nam faces in the process of transitioning to a middle income country is the widening gap between rich and poor and between different regions. The ‘feminization of poverty’4 is also a growing challenge. Local customs, patriarchal attitudes and traditions have led to gender inequality in the labour market and in political and public life.
Furthermore, ethnic minorities continue to be particularly vulnerable to high levels of poverty and inequality. While in 1990, only 18 percent of those living in poverty belonged to ethnic minorities, by 2008 ethnic minorities accounted for almost 56 percent of the poor.5 In 2012, the Committee on the Rights of the Child noted its concern over the lower level of development indicators among ethnic minorities, especially regarding access to health and education.6
Viet Nam faces significant human rights challenges in the area of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association and assembly. Space for expressing views on government policies and practices is also limited.7
Education for ethnic minorities
The official language used in schools in Viet Nam is Vietnamese. While the law recognizes that ethnic minorities have the right to use their mother tongue in schools in order to preserve and develop their ethnic and cultural identity, the lack of teaching capacity in minority languages has meant that in practice children are taught in Vietnamese only. As many minority communities have only a limited understanding and proficiency in Vietnamese, this has created a language barrier for many of these children.
Lack of access to education in their mother tongue, together with the use of Vietnamese, is considered one of the reasons why the net primary school completion rate among ethnic minority children (61 percent) is significantly lower than the rate for Kinh (86 percent). For minority women the problem of illiteracy is particularly acute; literacy rates for ethnic minority women are just 22 percent, as compared to 92 percent for ethnic Kinh women.8
Engaging with international human rights processes and mechanisms
Since 2008, UNDP has been implementing a capacity-building project on human rights treaty reporting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project has provided an opportunity for the United Nations country team in Viet Nam to engage with and support the government in its interaction with international human rights mechanisms. Supporting engagement with the Universal Periodic Review, human rights treaty body reporting, sharing knowledge on processes and procedures, and supporting the government in organizing visits of Special Procedures mandate holders of the Human Rights Council proved a useful way to concretize human rights concepts and provide expertise to the government.
In May 2009, Viet Nam was assessed under the Universal Periodic Review. This afforded the government an important chance to present an overview of the main opportunities and challenges they faced in meeting their international obligations, as well as to demonstrate progress made toward achieving key commitments under human rights treaties. It also provided an opportunity for the United Nations to support the government to engage effectively with this process. At the government’s request, UNDP, in close coordination with the United Nations country team and with OHCHR Geneva support, facilitated training for government officials on the Universal Periodic Review. As part of this training, UNDP invited other countries from the region (Indonesia and Philippines) that had already undergone the process to share their experiences with Viet Nam. These activities helped build the government’s capacity and openness to engaging with international human rights mechanisms and, in doing so, strengthening the quality of Viet Nam’s engagement in the Universal Periodic Review. Viet Nam ensured representation at the highest level, which reflected the importance given to the Universal Periodic Review by the government.
The Universal Periodic Review experience, in turn, generated greater momentum to engage with other human rights mechanisms of the United Nations. One of the follow-up measures to the Universal Periodic Review process was the government’s invitation to six Special Procedures mandate holders of the Human Rights Council to visit Viet Nam.
United Nations Special Procedures: The Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Special Procedures are either an individual (called Special Rapporteur or Independent Expert) or a working group, usually composed of five members. Mandate Holders serve in their personal capacities and do not receive salaries or other financial compensation for their work. They rely on government invitations and cooperation to carry out their work. Mandate holders are appointed by the Human Rights Council and their work is supported by Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Viet Nam received four visits of United Nations Special Procedures mandate holders between 2010 and 2011: the Independent Expert on minority issues (July 2010); the Independent Expert on extreme poverty and human rights (August 2010); the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt (March 2011); and the Special Rapporteur on the right to health (November – December 2011). These visits provided significant occasions for Viet Nam to benefit from the expertise of Special Procedures in its efforts to follow up on the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review, and to address key human rights issues in the country.
The United Nations country team took a number of steps to maximize the value and impact of these visits and to optimize the benefits of the government’s engagement with the Special Procedures. As a first step, and in collaboration with OHCHR Geneva, the United Nations country team organized workshops for the government to provide guidance on the overall procedures of such visits and the mandates of the Special Procedures.
During the visits, the United Nations country team and technical experts from the agencies played an important role by providing the Special Procedures with technical expertise on issues falling within their mandates. This was particularly important in Viet Nam where civil society is developing its capacity to engage in these processes. In turn, being able to draw on this expertise ensured that the Special Procedures report and recommendations reflected the realities, opportunities and challenges in the country.
United Nations country team engagement with the Independent Expert on minority issues
In July 2010, the Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougal, visited Viet Nam. The United Nations country team viewed the visit of the Independent Expert as an opportunity to strengthen and further reinforce government efforts to address widening inequalities and persistent poverty among minority ethnic groups. Supporting the government to achieve inclusive and equitable growth is a core part of the United Nations country team’s development agenda.
At the beginning of the visit, the United Nations country team organized a formal briefing with the Independent Expert to discuss key issues, challenges and opportunities. This was followed by in-depth briefings with technical experts from several United Nations agencies. The United Nation’s inter-agency approach proved extremely valuable in this process. Having all United Nations agencies around the same table provided the Independent Expert with a breadth of expertise and knowledge on a wide range of issues affecting her mandate – ethnic minority poverty, cultural diversity, sexual reproductive health for minorities and bi-lingual education. United Nations agencies’ expertise in the relevant areas enabled the Independent Expert to support the agencies’ work. It allowed the Independent Expert to draw on agency expertise to make concrete and useful recommendations that could assist the government to move forward.
According to the Independent Expert, her visit was, “a great opportunity to re-introduce Viet Nam to the international human rights mechanisms. It allowed Viet Nam to share its accomplishments and the obstacles it has had to surmount with the Human Rights Council and human rights mechanisms. The government took my mission very seriously. They learned a lot from the mission on what they can expect in engaging with human rights mechanisms.”
Engaging the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues in support of bilingual education for ethnic minorities
Internationally there has been consistent recognition of the value of bilingual education in improving learning and reducing drop-out rates.9 To examine ways by which this concept can best work in Viet Nam, the Ministry of Education and Training worked together with UNICEF to pilot a project on bilingual education in three provinces (see Box 1). In addition, to generate support among government counterparts for this approach and to ensure the government would benefit from the expertise of international human rights mechanisms, UNICEF, in collaboration with the United Nations country team, strategically engaged with the Independent Expert on minority issues during her visit in July 2010.
UNICEF provided the Independent Expert with in-depth briefing notes on the legal framework for ethnic minority languages in education and their rights to use their mother tongue in school. UNICEF also held face to face meetings with the Independent Expert and organized her participation in a mother-tongue teacher training workshop. This participation enabled her to interact directly with teachers being trained.
Box 1: UNICEF’s Action Research on mother tongue-based bilingual education in Viet Nam
UNICEF has been supporting the Ministry of Education and Training to implement and monitor a pilot project on bilingual education since 2008. The pilot project is being carried out in three provinces – Lao Cai, Gia Lai and Tra Vinh – in the minority languages of H’mong, Jrai and Khmer, respectively. Students in each province will complete the pilot programme by 2015. Through the project, teachers are trained in bilingual education techniques and provided special teaching and learning materials developed in consultation with local communities. The project is being carefully monitored for evidence of improvements in the quality of education. The ultimate objective is to feed the research results into a national education strategy that supports bilingual education.10
In the Independent Expert on minority issues’ report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the issue of bilingual education for ethnic minorities featured prominently among the key recommendations. The Independent Expert explicitly referred to the example of UNICEF’s work in bilingual education and recommended that this approach be supported and expanded to other districts.
According to the Independent Expert’s report, “the importance of improving the education outcomes of minorities cannot be overstated. Access to quality and appropriate education is a fundamental gateway to development and poverty eradication for minorities in Viet Nam..."
The independent expert saw clear evidence that bilingual education ultimately serves to increase the potential of ethnic minority children and communities to learn and use Vietnamese…The government should permit and support bilingual education for ethnic minority children.”11
Her recommendations to Viet Nam were fully in line with the United Nations country team’s overall policy recommendations on minority issues outlined in the United Nations’ One Plan. This is an achievement realized through the engagement and cooperation of the United Nations country team with the Independent Expert during the course of her visit.
Most importantly, the visit of the Independent Expert provided a powerful advocacy opportunity for the United Nations’ efforts to promote bilingual education.
By validating the methodology that UNICEF and the Ministry of Education were piloting and encouraging its institutionalization, the recommendations provided authoritative inputs for UNICEF to draw upon in advocating for this approach.12 The recognition and support of the Independent Expert added weight and credibility to the methodology, providing a significant recommendation for its acceptance in the country. The Ministry of Education has now formally recognized that bilingual education is one of the solutions to strengthen ethnic minority children’s education.13
Moreover, early results from the UNICEF Action Research on mother tongue-based bilingual education are promising. As a whole, children enrolled in the programme are performing better than minority children not enrolled in the programme in language competency tests in both their mother tongue and Vietnamese. They also outperform ethnic minority students not in the programme in listening comprehension and mathematics.
As a result of the encouraging results from the Action Research, this approach is increasingly being recognized as a good practice, both nationally and in the region. One provincial department of education and training has opted to use its own funds to more than double the number of bilingual education classes; 344 Mong ethnic minority children are now enrolled in these classes. Three additional provinces, Dien Ben, An Giang and Ninh Thuan, have also expressed interest in the methodology and have committed to applying the approach. The Provincial Department of Education and Training is supporting these efforts and has scaled up mother tongue-based bilingual education so that each school year from 2011 to 2015, a new group of 210 children aged five will enter mother tongue-based bilingual education classes. Specific policy recommendations on the use of bilingual education have also since been promulgated by the National Assembly and Committee for Ethnic Minorities. In addition, delegations from Myanmar and China visited Viet Nam to learn from this experience.
Equally, the report from the Independent Expert raised the visibility and interest in the approach among donors and development partners in Viet Nam. These partners have expressed interest in supporting the follow-up to the Independent Expert’s recommendations. For example, the European Union delegation in Viet Nam welcomed the Independent Expert’s recommendations on the expansion of mother tongue-based instruction and requested UNICEF to prepare a concept note on how this approach could be expanded within the country.
The experience of Viet Nam also highlights the important role that the United Nations country team, through its long-term presence in the country, technical expertise and normative mandate, can play in supporting the government to follow up on recommendations of the Special Procedures mandate holders. As noted by the Independent Expert, “the United Nations country team is essential and may be the only possible mechanism for follow up, given the limited capacities of Special Procedures”
Since the visit of the Independent Expert on minority issues, Viet Nam’s growing engagement with other human rights mechanisms is leading to greater international exposure on the issue of bilingual education. The country recently reported to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 2012)14 and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (June 2012).15 Both Committees, in their Concluding Observations to Viet Nam, urged the country to increase the provision of bilingual education programmes for ethnic minority children, further supporting and validating Viet Nam’s efforts in this area.
The Universal Periodic Review presents an opportunity for government to strengthen its engagement with all international human rights mechanisms and for the United Nations country team to support government capacity in engaging with these mechanisms.
The United Nations country team can play an important role in maximizing the value and impact of the visits of Special Procedures mandate holders. Engaging with the United Nations country team during a country visit allows the Special Procedures to draw upon the expertise of development agencies to offer concrete and useful recommendations that can help the government move forward on human rights issues.
Access to quality and appropriate education is a gateway to development and poverty reduction for minorities. The introduction of bilingual education for minority children can help these children to make better early progress and creates strong and culturallyappropriate foundations for their future schooling.
The recommendations of international human rights mechanisms can provide valuable and authoritative inputs to integrate human rights into United Nations advocacy, policy and programming initiatives to further development outcomes.
The visits of Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council can ensure that government efforts to address human rights challenges and to mainstream human rights into development programmes benefit from internationally-recognized expertise.
UNICEF Action research brief
UNICEF, Vietnam and the Millennium Development Goals
United Nations in Viet Nam Website
United Nations compilation report to the Universal Periodic Review, OHCHR, March 2009, A/HRC/WG.6/5/VNM/2.
Viet Nam Millennium Development Goals National Report 2010, p. 114.
Concluding Observations by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Viet Nam, June, 2012, CRC/C/VNM/CO/3-4.
Concerns over access to freedom of information, the independence of the media from the State, freedom of assembly, the ability of individuals, groups and civil society to express their opinions or dissent publicly were noted at the interactive dialogue of the Universal Periodic Review of Viet Nam by the Human Rights Council in May 2009: A/HRC/12/11.
Report of the Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, January 2011, A/HRC/16/45/Add.2. Mission to Viet Nam (5-15 July 2010)
UNICEF Annual Report 2010, p. 23.
UNICEF Action research brief
Report of the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, 24 January 2011, A/HRC/16/45/Add.2 paras. 85, 87 and 89. Mission to Viet Nam (5-15 July 2010)
UNESCO has been a key partner with UNICEF in advocating for and promoting multilingual education in Viet Nam.
The 2011 “Management Document on Teaching Vietnamese to Ethnic Minority Students” of the Ministry of Education and Training, explicitly cites the Action Research on mother tongue-based bilingual education as one of the four solutions to improving education for children of ethnic minorities.
Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Viet Nam, March 2012: CERD/C/VNM/CO/10-14.
Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Viet Nam, June 2012: CRC/C/VNM/CO/3-4.