Young Nepalese contributing at home and abroad : Dr. John Howard

Dr. John Howard is an Australian trained in clinical psychology and criminology who has worked for over 40 years in schools, juvenile justice, youth mental health and programs for young people who use drugs.  He is also an academic and researcher who is currently a conjoint senior lecturer at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia. Since the early 1990s he has worked internationally with the UN [WHO, UNICEF, UNODC, UNESCAP] and International NGOs in East, South-East and South Asia, and of late mainly in Nepal and Bhutan. Dr Howard’s activities have mainly involved projects to build capacity in working with vulnerable and marginalized young people, especially those affected by the availability of drugs and their use, and those at risk of HIV and other blood born infections. He has had a particular focus on youth out of home, and community rather than custodial interventions. In our interview, Dr Howard was asked about issues facing young Nepal’s who he knows in Australia, and his reflections on the situation for young people in Nepal.

What has been your experience of young Nepalese in Sydney?

“The young Nepalese I know and spend time with in Sydney are a wonderful groups from varying backgrounds. Some are sons and daughters of parents who are in business or professional, some are from wealthy families with servants, others from big families or are only children of widowed or divorced woman, some are ex-Maoists. Most are keen and hard-working, and often take up jobs young Australians do not want – cleaning, fast food, room attendants in hotels, or kitchen hands – while they are studying. Life in Sydney can be very tough for them when they first arrive, but, usually, they get support from those who arrived earlier who try to make the transition easier.“Some want to stay, marry (mostly other Nepalese), and maybe bring their parents and other family members to Australia. They eventually buy homes, and enjoy two cultures – Nepali and Australia – they celebrate Tihar, and Dashain, as well as Easter and Christmas.  Others are keen to go home and contribute back in Nepal.

How do they spend their time in Australia?

“While in Australia, in addition to their studies, some paint, have exhibitions, write and play music, play sport, tour to see other parts of Australia, and have fun. They contribute to Nepal via sending money home – and work very hard to do this. This means that they have to meet their student fees and their own needs such as accommodation, food and transport in an expensive, developed economy, and possibly support the education of siblings back in Nepal, contribute to costs of weddings, illness and funerals, and provide for ageing parents and extended family.

‘What about a Brain Drain’

“Although contributing to their families, those who stay may also be regarded as part of the extensive ‘brain drain’ from Nepal. They are seen as depleting the pool of well educated Nepalese who are needed to build a functional and inclusive economy built on meeting human rights, with respect for democratic principles and not corruption, nepotism, cronyism or use of gangs and violence to push partisan agendas.“Most come believing education in Australia to be of high quality. While this is usually true, some education ‘sold’ to overseas students is of poor quality and somewhat useless.


Do they come to Australia only for education?

“No, some of those who come to Australia want to get away from conflict, corruption and lack of opportunities for employment and careers. Others want to explore themselves and their sexuality, and avoid arranged marriages and onerous family responsibilities. “Of course, not all adapt well and some experience great difficulties with their courses, their plans to stay in Australia and the impacts of family difficulties back in Nepal. Thus, they may return and be seen as ‘failures’, and as having ‘wasted ‘ the money raised by their families for them to study in Australia.

Meanwhile back in Nepal – what are some of the difficulties you see for young people there?

“Most seem to be managing well, but a considerable number are not. Many educated young Nepalese don’t want to do work seen as menial, such as construction and laboring. Their expectations have been raised and they want their own businesses, and a good career  However, there appear to be too many doing business, computing and IT courses; far too many for available jobs. Also, some colleges provide sub-standard education, and leave their ‘graduates’ with limited prospects of finding good jobs. Others undertake non-professional or non-vocational courses with the same poor outcomes.


“With many unemployed ‘graduates’ not wanting to take up available construction and other manual work in the cities of Nepal, the poor and marginalized from other countries – for example from poor states in India – come in to do the hard, low-status construction work and laboring.  Likewise, some poor under-educated Nepalese can leave to do such work in the Gulf; ‘owing’ their broker, but still able to send money home while living in often sub-standard conditions, badly mistreated, exploited and discriminated against in the Gulf and elsewhere.“This can also be the choice for some young and educated Nepalese: go out of Nepal to take up hard and low status jobs and endure terrible conditions, or remain in Nepal unemployed and dependent on ageing parents and family. This situation places great stresses on all, and can lead to mental health problems and use of alcohol and other drugs. It may even lead to youth with potential becoming fodder for corrupt politicians, their supporters and criminal gangs.

What about young people and drug use in Nepal?

“Use of drugs can make a lot of sense. Taking them can meet many needs, for example not to have to think about problems, to have fun, sleep, relax, socialize, reduce physical and mental pain, and just to ‘get out of it’.“Drugs are readily available in Nepal. Ganja grows wild almost everywhere, and its use forms part of some religious festivals such as Shivaratri. Anti-anxiety and sleep medications (such as diazepam/Valium) and those to treat heroin dependence (such as buprenorphine) can easily be sourced.

What are some of the impacts of drug use on young people?

“Two major concerns are that many drugs come in liquid form and are injected, and they are used in combinations – ‘cocktails’ with a mixture of two or three drugs being injected at the same time. This is a most dangerous form of drug use, and is associated with higher rates of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-born infections. This results in great personal, family, community and social costs. Treatment for these diseases is very expensive, in a resource strapped country where other health concerns such a clean drinking water and maternal and child health are priorities.“As well as the health concerns, dependent drug use is associated with poor engagement and performance in education and employment, loss of futures, family problems and great sadness.

Is there any bright side?

“Yes, despite some of this gloom and doom, there are remarkable examples of resilience in the face of great adversity. This is especially so in the wake of the recent earthquakes.  What is clear is that young people have been to the fore in rescue and recovery efforts – young students, graduates, professionals, aid workers, those have used drugs, unemployed and marginalized youth; all working together in dangerous situations cheerfully and with pride in re-building Nepal, or even actually being part of building a new Nepal – one of cooperation rather than conflict and partisan politics.

What are some ways forward?

“The ingredients for positive youth development already exist in Nepal and have been there for a long time. The major difficulties faced have been political instability and rampant corruption at so many levels. The need is to quickly and effectively address corruption, ensure rights, and actively engage with youth to act now. People say that ‘youth are the Future’, but they need more recognition now so they can have meaningful and fulfilling lives and take care of their families, communities and nation.“Youth must have a valid role and a loud voice. Often older adults like me find youth loud enough already, with musical tastes and loud games that disturb us. But, much of that is just youthful enthusiasm, and if we actually listen to what they have to say, and the lyrics of many songs we can come to realise that they make a lot of sense, and that they are ready to work with us to create futures and environments that we all will be happy to live in.“We have tended to focus on the negative and just see youth as confused, hedonistic, out of control, uncaring and disrespectful. There has been less focus on the positive such as their creativity, altruism, compassion, resilience  and sense of fun, and in creating of opportunities to hear them and work with them. Youth marginalization and identity are two key issues

“For those who begin to experiment with and then continue to get their needs met by using drugs, we need to invest in ‘youth friendly’ health services and harm reduction. Often young people do not have access to health and harm reduction services because of their age, and their human and health rights are denied, so they experience stigma and discrimination.  Services need to be available, accessible, appropriate, affordable – preferably free.

“To get there we need Intergenerational Partnerships – honest youth-adult partnerships. Inclusive participation is essential, and must be meaningful, and not just having a ‘youth representative’ as a tokenistic gesture. Young people may need assistance in developing skills necessary to fully participate. That is an adult responsibility that can be shared with ‘emerging adults’ – those aged 18 to 30 who may already have such skills and who can mentor less skilled young people.

“Also, Social Justice is crucial. Youth must be at the centre of issues and decision making relevant to them and their voice heard: ‘Nothing about me without me!’

John sirJohn sir:rom what I have seen, especially recently in response to the devastation from the earthquakes, Nepal has willing young people already contributing, and a huge pool that as yet may be untapped or not fully engaged. The task is to actively engage with youth, listen to them, encourage and support their positive development, task them with meaningful roles and then watch as they proudly and powerfully contribute to their nation

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