Forty-four-year-old Sonam Dema from Bumthang owns a handicraft shop in Tamzhing, where she sells homespun products. She also grows vegetables in her greenhouse.
Sonam, now a mother of three, never went to a formal school. Had it not been for non-formal education (NFE), she would have been a herder still. She recalls being a shy girl. But not anymore.
Everything changed when her husband, Sangay, encouraged and convinced her to enrol in NFE programme. That was 15 years ago today. She completed basic and post-literacy courses from Zangthelpo NFE centre; she could communicate in both English and Dzongkha.
Then, two years ago, Sonam completed her literacy course from community learning centre in Tamzhing and learnt tailoring and embroidery under community-based development programmes. After acquiring entrepreneurship skills such as book and record keeping, she ventured into commercialising vegetables and apiculture.
She now uses Wechat to sell her products.
“I feel empowered after completing the courses. Today, my economic opportunities have increased. I am more confident now,” Sonam Dema said. During tourists’ season, which lasts for about three months, Sonam Dema earns more than Nu 100,000.
Since its inception in 1990, community learning centres (CLCs) under NFE programme have equipped out-of-school youth and adults with community development programmes in health, agriculture, life-skill education, and entrepreneurial skills.
Due to the increasing number of women learners, most CLCs provided tailoring and weaving skills. Out of 22 centres only one, in Paro, teaches carpentry.
However, there are challenges.
For instance, it took Sonam Dema more than 10 years to complete her three-year course.
Scattered settlements and rugged terrain, lack of publicity and access is leading to the closure of several NFE centres across the country, according to the deputy chief programme officer with non-formal and continuous education division, Pelden.
“Often learners, usually women, drop-out of the centres due to household chores. Also, the instructors are looking for job opportunities elsewhere due to low pay and temporary nature of the job,” Pelden said.
The division, she added, was awaiting approval from the Royal Civil Service Commission to regularise the service of the NFE instructors.
Support from the family is also vitally necessary for the successful completion of the courses.
Karma Chozom from Jangbi in Trongsa could complete her courses only after separating from her husband, who was averse to her attending the programme.
Sonam Dema said that the way the instructors teach in the centres has improved by much in recent years. “In the past, the instructors employed traditional methods. Now, with different teaching methods, it has become not only interesting but also easier to learn.”
Lack of specialists and infrastructure has also impeded the success of the programme in some areas. Pelden said the enrollment is decreasing over the years, indicating increased adult literacy rate, which is 66.6 percent in 2017.
“By 2024, we are aiming at 80 percent adult literacy rate and 100 percent by 2030,” she added.
In the meantime, NFE equivalency framework, an operational guideline, once implemented will create flexible pathways among formal, non-formal, skilled workforce and out-of-school youth.
As of June this year, there were 5,539 learners with 520 instructors in 482 NFE centres across the country. The programme has so far benefited more than 200,000 learners.
UNICEF has played a crucial role in supporting the programme.
On November 11, birth anniversary of His Majesty the Fourth King, non-formal education and continuous education division under MoE released a video, “The Light of Education – Leaving No One Behind” as a tribute to His Majesty who initiated the programme to empower Bhutanese women.
The video highlights the success stories, challenges and impact of the NFE programme in the country in 29 years since it’s inception.
Korean National Commission for UNESCO supported the programme.