Is there a link between life expectancy and education? The VSO's Purna Kumar Shrestha not only believes so, but argues - on the example of Nepal - that theatre can also play a role.
Women's education and life expectancy are both increasing
I have no doubt that life expectancy and education are linked. When I was born in the early 1970s, Nepali citizens were expected to live until the age of 45. This has risen substantially, in large part, due to a sharp drop in maternal and child mortality. Between 1980 and 2012, life expectancy at birth increased by 20.9 years, marking a real change according to the UN's Human Development Index.
Research by UNESCO indicates a strong bond between education and life expectancy. According to their Global Monitoring Report, each extra year a mother attends school reduces the probability of infant mortality by five to ten per cent. Another study conducted in 175 countries and published in The Lancet investigated the connection between child mortality and women’s educational attainment. Using income per person and HIV seroprevalence – the overall occurrence of the disease within a defined population at one time measured by blood tests – as controls, it concluded that the increase in women’s education globally over the past forty years has prevented more than four million children from dying.
Nepali children are gaining more access to literature in their own language
In the 1990s, I taught in Nepal, and at that time, children's access to literature was very limited. Education at that time was heavily textbook-based and children’s books were still a real commodity. As literature was not part of the school curriculum, I felt that my pupils did not have as many ways to express their concerns or speak out about what worried them as they could have. However, over a period of 15 years teaching, I witnessed change within this domain. I worked with the charity, Room to Read, which started in Nepal and has since distributed more than 15.5 million books in the developing world.
At the beginning, when the charity had just been founded, we collected donations of children’s books from the US and distributed them to a number of Nepalese schools where we set up libraries. In theory, this was progress. However, despite the excitement and the colourful pictures, it rapidly became clear that the books were not appropriate for Nepalese children. They were in English, and the reading level was too high for them to understand or benefit from them in any meaningful way. In response to this realisation the charity took a different approach, and the team that I was working with began to publish children’s story books in Nepali language that were written by local writers.
Since then, whenever I return to Nepal, I am impressed to see a wide range of books that are available for children to read in their local languages. Since its foundation, Room to Read has supported the development of 17,534 school libraries, and continues to support the culture of learning and curiosity within the country.
Nepal is developing measurably
Education plays an important role in improving life expectancy and well-being. Over the last 20 years, Nepal has progressed significantly in achieving its development targets. According to UIS UNESCO, between 1981 and 2015 there has been a notable increase in the percentage of literate young people aged between 15 and 24. Now, 42.4 per cent more boys and 77.6 per cent more girls are literate than they were in 1981. Nepal has also made progress in achieving gender parity in literacy. In the same time frame, the average number of years of schooling that children receive has increased by 2.6 years.
Other UNESCO research provides compelling evidence that children whose parents attended school are more conscious of health, nutrition and well-being. In recent years, rates of stunting and underweight in children have decreased, and the rate of exclusive breastfeeding – an infant's consumption of human milk with no supplementation of any type – has increased. Between 1996 and 2011, the number of children under five years old who were stunted reduced by 25 per cent. Is this a coincidence? Perhaps not. A combination of factors such as better access to health care, education, nutrition and immunisation, and increased access to information through technology have all played a part. In addition, the improved provision of early childhood education and care facilities in Nepal has contributed to an increase in average life expectancy.
Drama can educate communities
While improved education and health services have positively contributed to better life expectancy in many countries like Nepal, more still needs to be done if we are to achieve the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals launched in September this year. Drama has proved to be an effective method of raising public awareness of health issues that affect life expectancy. Until a decade ago, access to radio, television and internet was limited. This meant that the role of street theatre (sadak naatak) was even more significant than it is today. It proved to be a popular way of communicating with the general public on issues such as early marriage, HIV/AIDS and the sex trafficking of children.
Street drama can be an effective way for community-based and non-governmental organisations to reach out to people in areas where literacy levels are low. When I was a child I was part of a club where I used to get together with my friends, discuss social issues, and then perform pieces of drama in my community and on special days at school. I really enjoyed it and can see now that it was a way of sharing important messages with people outside of our group.
Using drama to educate people about health and environmental issues was something I found effective throughout my career as a teacher. During a summer camp that I helped organise with Nepal Education Support Trust, a charity I founded, I introduced students to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I encouraged them to take inspiration from it and to develop their own vision about Nepal. They dreamed of things such as a Nepal without power cuts. One dreamed of Nepal as a developed country, and another student dreamed of a place where there was no scarcity of drinking water.
The Nepali example shows that change can happen through concerted and targeted efforts. Education has improved, life expectancy has gone up, and we can look ahead and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges.
The VSO is a partner of the British Council in Shakespeare Lives, a programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.