In the mid 1980s, my work in rural Nepal included building schools in remote villages. There was one aspect of my project that haunts me till date. When I compared the roster of those building the schools with the students who attended them, a remarkable fact emerged: the surnames of those involved in contruction were always different from those attending the school. The toiling adults were usually from Vishwakarma (BK), Pariyar and Sarki families, whereas the children studying in the school were from Subedi, Karki and Shrestha families.

It was apparent that Nepal was a distinctly hierarchical society that had been defined and predetermined by caste, gender and ethnicity. In fact, before 1963, Nepali Dalits were forbidden to attend government schools by the Muluki Ain. This century-old national law kept hard-working castes in the shadows of society, suppressed by a historical and religious proscription that allowed them to build the local schools — but didn’t permit their children to attend them.

Later, when our programme moved north to the remote mountains, where the Gurung, Ghaley and Baramu live, I could see that many Janjati (ethnic) communities receded from power - not sought it - over Nepal’s long and turbulent history. Similarly, in the Terai and the hills surrounding Kathmandu, the social and political barriers to education, property and political power were equally visible among the landless Maithali Dalits, the disenfranchised majority Terai Tharu and the intentionally exploited Tamang communities. Such cultural and economic realities were visible but rarely discussed. Quality was seen as the antithesis of diversity, not a core component of Nepal’s rich culture.

Only recently have Kathamndu-centric civil society, donors and national leaders used the words, “Social Exclusion”, “Unequal Citizens” or “Ethnic Discrimination” as acceptable terms to describe the impact of rigid national hierarchy. Now that a peaceful process to create a “New Nepal” has begun, it is essential that universal human rights be made the foundation of Nepal as established by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination. Although past governments signed such documents, the nation has never fulfilled its commitment.

Hence political parties and government representatives have to assume the mantle for changing this social disparity. Only when indigenous communities have access to similar educational opportunities as ‘high caste’ students will Nepal achieve a society that measures up to its ideals. Only when the rights of ex-kamaiyas to own home and land are secured will Nepal’s reality match its rhetoric. Only when Musahar and Dom children can afford to attend school and not work in dangerous brick factories will Nepal be secure and prosperous. Only when the children of soft-spoken Tamang community now working as domestics in urban homes achieve positions of authority in the government will the face of Nepal truly change. Only when the rights of Nepali children of all castes, ethnicities and religions are protected and promoted by parents, communities and government will Nepal know the comfort of peace.