Photo by Sophie Giffard, taken with permission

Megan Cowley, a recent graduate of the Understanding and Securing Human Rights master’s degree offered by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, was awarded the 2016 Albie Sachs Prize for best dissertation. She describes her research conducted in a rural district in Nepal, which she used as a case study to examine potential barriers children with physical disabilities face in accessing the universal right to an equal education.

I had never been to a town like Malangwa before. Located in the Sarlahi district in the Terai region of Nepal, it was a fifteen-minute walk to the Indian border. My research team and I, after having spent 12 hours crammed onto sacks of rice on a local bus winding our way down from Kathmandu, had a massive task at hand. Over the next four days, we needed to travel to nine schools in different parts of the massive district, seek out any children with physical disabilities, and interview them to assess what level of education they were receiving (and whether it was on par to their peers).

The research team, which included four fantastic local employees and one fellow research volunteer from the UK, spent the week interviewing almost 200 children, teachers and parents. We needed to get a realistic grip on any adversity children with physical disabilities face in gaining access to an education in rural Nepal.

Two things stood out instantly. First, I noticed how disconnected the villages were from the outside world. They all lacked basic services such as electricity, running water, and proper plumbing – even motor vehicles were seen as a luxury. This lack of access to outside information was one of the biggest barriers children with physical disabilities seemed to be facing in their quest for education.

Although parents interviewed were aware their child had some sort of physical disability, they often did not know exactly what it was or how to get any kind of assistance. A majority of the children we spoke to had never received medical attention or even been to a doctor. One father broke down in tears after the team’s doctor told him that what he thought was a permanent physical disability in his son, was actually ‘club foot’, and could easily be corrected with simple surgery, the cost of which could be covered by the government.

The other barrier to education that children with physical disabilities appeared to be facing was the obvious lack of physical infrastructure – anywhere. The roads to school were harsh, unpaved and pitted, and most classrooms and toilets could only be accessed via unconventionally steep concrete steps. There was also an overall absence of any disability-friendly ramps or railings in any of the schools visited during the research.

The universal and human right to an inclusive education is one of our most basic and important rights, but it is one that is not prioritised, and is often overlooked, by certain governments. The case study in rural Nepal suggests that even though the country’s government has signed on to every international human rights treaty and has promised inclusive education for its people, certain groups are still being left out.

The Albie Sachs Prize has given me additional inspiration to continue to fight for the right to education for those who continue to be excluded – be it women and girls, minorities, refugees, or children with disabilities. I hope to continue my independent research on the topic alongside my new position at an NGO that subscribes to these same values.

Megan Cowley is a 2015/16 MA graduate in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. She now works for an international NGO, The ONE Campaign, in London, where she has been able to continue to research and advocate for the universal right to an inclusive education.