Anju fights for equal education opportunities

AnjuAnju teaches a girl with visual impairments
how to walk with a cane

Dutch version

Changemaker Anju Dhital (30) is a national volunteer on the ENGAGE project (Empowering New Generation of Adolescent Girls with Education) in rural Nepal. She helps children with visual impairments access quality education opportunities, by mentoring young people, training local facilitators in braille, and motivating parents and community volunteers to support children with disabilities. Anju, based in Terai, was awarded the Education Award in the VSO Volunteer Impact Awards 2020.

Having a visual impairment myself inspired me

As a girl with a visually impairment, I was fortunate to have a supportive family while growing up. However, while going to school I faced many challenges. The learning environment was not disability friendly and I had no appropriate learning materials. For example, trying to learn about the different shapes in geometry with only a book and no braille pictures meant I got poor marks in maths. I could only start school at 7 years old, while most children start when they’re 5, so I ended up in reading classes with younger children. Because those with disabilities were older and taller, we were sat at the back of the class and couldn’t hear the teacher. The teacher would often write on the board, without saying what they were writing.  

Coming from this background, I felt inspired to work closely with children who have disabilities and who are living in rural areas. I understand the challenges they face. At the age of 22 I started volunteering to support people with disabilities. In this role I needed to use public transport to get around but often wouldn’t be allowed to enter the bus. The driver on the bus would assume I couldn’t pay, simply because of my disability. 


The difficulties we face

My purpose is to empower girls with disabilities and support them in their education. As a VSO changemaker, I work with their parents to convince them to send their children to school. I also support the children to learn braille and I help girls aged 10-14 to enrol in the local school that can support the needs of those with disabilities. On the whole project, there are three braille trainers in three districts and three sign language trainers in three districts. 

In Nepal there’s a lack of infrastructure in schools to support children with disabilities. It can be very hard to motivate parents to send their children to school. But there are also other issues, for example: there are no exams available in braille and while sometimes children with visual impairments may be given extra time in exams, often the schools won’t allow the child to have extra time. I was also supporting two girls (aged 12 & 16) who were seen as too old to start at the school. I worked very hard to convince the school to accept these girls.

“I’ve had an impact even on girls who don’t have a disability. Their parents see me and think: “if Anju can be a volunteer and do something purposeful, then so can my daughter”. I have also noticed I’ve inspired other community members.” – Anju 

The impact of one changemaker

I have frequent meetings with the teachers to check the progress of the children I support. I also visit the children I support and their parents and talk with them about the policy provision for people with disabilities, set out by the Nepali government, to make sure they are aware of their rights. I’ve had an impact even on girls who don’t have a disability. Their parents see me and think: “if Anju can be a volunteer and do something purposeful, then so can my daughter.” I have also noticed I’ve inspired other community members. They see me, and the challenges I have overcome, and it helps to improve their understanding of people who are visually impaired.  

I’ve seen big improvements in learning braille for all the children with visual impairments. Now they are spending their days learning and doing something rather than sitting idle. I’ve also helped them develop skills such as brushing their hair and how to maintain their personal hygiene. 

In one house, there was a mother who refused to send her daughter to school. She was worried about how her visually impaired daughter would get on without her. I spoke with the mother about the benefits of the school, visiting her regularly. I had other changemakers and the project officer to visit and persuade her. I even took the family on a tour of the school, so they could see what it would be like and that there was a teacher with specialist skills who could support her daughter. Eventually, she said yes, and I was so happy to hear her daughter would be going to get an education.  

Nepal went into lockdown

During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nepal went into lockdown. Children with disabilities were stuck at home without access to important information. I translated leaflets about gender-based violence, a social problem that came more and more into focus during the pandemic, into braille and delivered these to the children. I also had regular phone calls to the vulnerable girls and started to understand their health and wellbeing and give them lessons over the phone. Because children with disabilities are at greater risk to the virus, I also taught parents about cleanliness and hygiene routines to adopt to protect their children.  

The best part of being a changemaker is the opportunity to work with very marginalised girls from rural communities. I come from a similar situation and have a visual impairment. It’s important to me that these girls have equal rights and opportunities.  

I feel very proud to receive the VSO volunteer award. I never expected to receive anything, my time as a volunteer has been in the service of others. It’s important to support VSO so the organisation can help more people. I hope to continue as a volunteer for the next year, and then I hope to get a job within the government of Nepal, continuing to teach and support children with disabilities.

Written by: Sofia Goncalves
Edited by: VSO Nederland
Images: VSO/Anju Dhital

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