‘Every child has the right to survive, learn and be protected:’ Heather Campbell, Country Director, Save the Children

‘As the Country Director for Save the Children Nepal and Bhutan, I aspire to do something meaningful for the children, and try to always remember the humanity that inspired me to join the non-profit sector.’

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 10 min.

Save the Children was the first global movement for children, declaring that children have rights. This is an organization that works around the world to give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm.

Save the Children has been operating in Nepal since 1976 as the largest child-focused organization in the country with the vision for ‘all children to attain the right to survival, protection, development and participation’.

We will continue to work towards ensuring that children in Nepal are healthy, educated, protected, and are provided with manifold opportunities to succeed, where their rights and voice are celebrated and recognized. 

Currently, the organization works with over 100 partners in 77 districts of Nepal in the areas of Child Rights Governance, Child Protection, Education, Health and Nutrition, Livelihoods, HIV and Humanitarian Response. With decade-long experience in the development sector, Heather Campbell has been working as a Country Director for Save the Children-Nepal. Nepal Live Today had a conversation with her on a range of issues. Excerpts:

To start with, what inspired you to come to and work in the non-profit sector?

Growing up, I used to watch a lot of documentaries on the National Geographic Channel, which inspired me to travel around the world, interact with people, and to understand their way of life. This drive to understand people and their realities became stronger when I was an undergrad student in Johns Hopkins University. The issue of fair wage was on its peak, and as a student I used to participate in programs and dialogues with youth like me, and discuss how unequal pay was negating women rights, and marginalizing those who did not have access to power and systems due to the structural barriers created by our society. This was an eye-opener for me, as I witnessed how these social determinants of access, success, equality are curated by people who hold power, and more had to be done to spotlight this imbalance of authority which had given rise to unequal treatment, inequality, and discrimination.

When in college, I was awarded the ‘Woodrow Wilson Research Fellowship’ and was in China to research the impact of the one-child policy. That’s when the Tsunami hit Asia, and the impact was devastating. I was inspired to volunteer for a local organization in Thailand, and saw first-hand how organizations on the ground, despite the limited resources, were doing so much for their communities with so little.  This further crystallized my belief that humanity was the ultimate driver to dismantle regressive structures and foster a belonging in people—despite the dividing lines. That’s when I decided that the development sector is the area for me, and I never looked back. I have worked in volatile and developing contexts such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, East Timor, and the Horn of Africa. Now as the Country Director for Save the Children Nepal and Bhutan, I aspire to do something meaningful for the children, and try to always remember the humanity that inspired me to join the non-profit sector.

What are the priority areas of Save the Children in Nepal?

Save the Children has been in Nepal since 1976, and our uncompromising philosophy and principle is that every child has the right to survive, learn and be protected. As part of our Country Strategic Plan, we are focusing on promoting climate change initiatives with and for children and youth, leveraging shock responsive social protection, investing in developing innovations and strategies to reach most marginalized communities, addressing the learning loss from COVID-19 by ensuring that children are safely back to school and working towards making our education systems resilient towards pandemic and other shocks, spotlighting on mental health and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) of children and adolescents. Also, through our current integrated nutrition programs, we are also working to ensure nutritional needs of children and young mothers, and working on behavior change programming to address malnutrition and its life-long consequences, as malnutrition has a long-term impact on both physical and cognitive development of a child. Furthermore, under the Global Fund Grant, we are also implementing programs to respond against Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV in Nepal. Including Global Fund, Save the Children has programs in all 77 districts of Nepal.

Eliminating child labor is one of the priority areas of Save the Children in Nepal. Nepal aims to eliminate it by next year. In your view, will it be possible to get there next year?

One of my first few interactions as the Country Director for Save the Children in Nepal was with the officials from the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security, and I was very inspired by the commitment of the government of Nepal to eliminate child labor. Also, the call of action to collaborate with CSOs and organizations such as Save the Children to address the poly crisis of child labor—both in internal and external settings—has further inspired us to do more.

We are in the steering committee of an alliance working to advocate for the eradication of child labor. As part of the alliance formed by the Government of Nepal, we are working closely with like-minded organizations to implement the ‘Master Plan to End Child Labor in Nepal’ (2018 to 2028). However, critically analyzing the situation, more needs to be done to reach the target. To strategically address the issue of child labor there needs to be a strong political and social will and sufficient public budget. Also, there are two critical issues here. Firstly, the government is yet to amend the respective law to address the issue of children working in the informal sector. Secondly, we do not have country wide data, which captures the number of children working in the informal sector, and we lack proper referral mechanisms. Therefore, the best thing to do is to encourage a practical view to look at the issue. Even though there are challenges to regulate the informal sector, we need to work on a holistic strategy and action to ensure that the rights of children in both formal and informal settings are recognized, and work on a policy and mindset change to eradicate child labor from Nepal. 

Your country’s strategic plan puts the climate crisis initiative with and for children and youth as a priority area of intervention. This is important for Nepal because of its vulnerability to disaster. How does this strategy align with your activities in Nepal?

Climate change is a child rights crisis. Therefore, climate conversation is incomplete without engaging with children and young people. Our strategy focuses on building on climate informed initiatives and innovations through consultations with children, young people, and communities most impacted by the climate crisis. We realize the potential and strength of engaging with children and young people, and as a child rights organization we believe that we need to SHIFT power, but before that share power with them to identify solutions to address climate crisis and prime their voices to influence policy and decision makers calling for more accountability to ensure climate justice, and for a green future. Recently, our child climate change activists participated in the G20 held in Indonesia, and discussed the climate crisis and the hostility that it has created in the lives of children.

‘Climate change is a child rights crisis. Therefore, climate conversation is incomplete without engaging with children and young people.’ 

Furthermore, our programs are designed to address the poly crisis of climate induced disasters—from floods, landscape, and draught to spotlighting on the rise of migration, child labor, child marriage, human trafficking, mental health—all linked with climate crisis. Our climate change and resilience teams have been working closely with the government on strengthening climate change actions, using a system-strengthening approach that includes information management system, such as the ‘BIPAD’ (Or, disaster) portal. An innovative way of developing early warning systems to build community resilience addressing issues around climate governance, capacity building linking all three tiers of governments and targeting the most marginalized, to reach the unreached. Also, we are promoting and implementing green job actions by designing need-based and targeted training for entrepreneurs focusing on encouraging green skills for creating self-employment/wage-employment opportunities. We work with like-minded organizations such as WWF to draw attention to the impact of climate change in the lives of children and youth, and provide them with the skills and platforms to lead the climate justice conversation.

Can you explain Save the Children’s work during the COVID-19 to ensure children’s education, learning and continuity?  

Save the Children in Nepal rolled out a series of innovative, child-focused, and community informed initiatives to ensure that children’s education and learning was not disrupted from COVID-19. We collaborated with our local partners, community teachers, and relevant government agencies in the three tiers to identify workable models to ensure education, learning, and continuity. For example, we piloted the ‘Home Schooling Model’—an innovative approach to promote a learning environment at home by priming caregivers as ‘teachers’ to support learning and life-skills based education. This innovative model was endorsed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) in the “Student Learning Facilitation Directive 2020”. We collaborated with local teachers to start ‘radio schools’ where teachers got behind the mic and conducted math, science, and English classes using the radio as a medium to connect, engage, and facilitate learning to children. Through our regular programs, we provided children with remedial education, bursary support, counseling, and life-skills sessions to respond to learning loss during the pandemic.

Furthermore, in collaboration with the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (CEHRD) and the Education Cluster, SC supported the development of a series of self-learning packs for children from early childhood care and development (ECCD) to grade 8. These self-learning packs are for children belonging to the most vulnerable communities, and are twinned with regular curriculum exercises, along with life-saving information on COVID-19 focusing on the overall development and holistic growth of a child.

During COVID-19, Save the Children worked with the Ministry of Health and Population’s National Health Education Information Communication Center (NHEICC) to combat rumors related to COVID-19, and increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake in most marginalized communities. Can you share more about this?

Save the Children was one of the first few organizations to activate Social and Behavior Change informed Risk Communications and Community Engagement (RCCE) actions to inform children and communities about the risks of COVID-19. We activated a series of practical actions based on the behavior insights generated from our research on COVID-19 and vaccination and were successful in identifying six behavioral insights which would support with strengthening COVID-19 vaccine uptake in Nepal. Similarly, we not only limited ourselves to disseminating COVID-19 life-saving messages from radio and other popular media. But we also twinned our awareness campaigns with community engagement actions, where we collaborated with the Ministry of Health and Population, National Health Education Information Communications Center, local government, Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs), health officers, and child and youth club members. One of the innovations that we tested was the ‘Community Information Point’ (CIP) model, where we worked closely with local barbers and tea shop owners to inspire people to get the COVID-19 vaccines. Oriented on community engagement and COVID-19 key messaging, barbers and tea shop sellers started conversation on the importance of following COVID-19 safety protocols and getting the vaccination to their clients. Priming local actors as ‘role models’ and heralding community focused and targeted interactions works, and in areas where we piloted these models there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 vaccine uptake.

From the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, we realized that children and their needs during the COVID-19 were not prioritized. Therefore, in collaboration with Community Information Network (CIN), we started a radio capsule program ‘Hamro Palo’ (It’s our time NOW!) – where children asked questions related to COVID-19 and vaccines to ministers, policymakers, and key stakeholders. This weekly radio capsule broadcast from 300 + community FM stations helped bring the issues and concerns of children during COVID in the forefront, making duty bearers accountable towards their needs and issues. Also, another SBC informed program, ‘Khelo Dohori’–a radio series featuring Nepali folk music dohori (back and forth exchange of lyrical phrases between singers) helped to debunk rumors about the COVID-19 vaccine and promote its uptake and confidence. The show was concentrated in the Karnali province, and we also had the former chief minister of Karnali participating in the show, where he sang dohori songs on COVID-19 vaccines, and expressed his commitment to ensuring equitable access to vaccines to everyone. According to Save the Children’s behavior science research, public commitments from leaders often nudge people to get vaccinated.

‘Save the Children is proud to be a strong advocate for localization.  We work with more than 100 local partners, who through a collaborative leadership approach co-design and co-implement strategic programs and projects.’

Save the Children is a pioneer in advocating for LGBTQI+ rights. Are there any highlights you can share with us?

In partnership with NORAD and Blue Diamond Society (BDS), we have been implementing various school and community based LGBTQI+ programs such as, teachers training, advocacy to include LGBTQI+ informed sexual and reproductive health and awareness in school curriculum and influencing local governments to include LGBTQI+ children in their social security schemes.

Furthermore, we have been using edutainment approaches to shift norms related to LGBTQI+ children, and from a non-adversarial way to engage with communities via humanized storytelling to spotlight on the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQI+ children and young people face. Recently, we released ‘Becoming,’ a LGBTQI+ web series produced by 60 percent cast and crew from the LGBTQI+ community. At Save the Children, we believe that discussion of inclusion and equity cannot be in silos, and we need to engage with children and individuals most impacted to ensure meaningful representation and thought leadership. More so, it is important to promote LGBTQI+ children and young people as ‘role models’ and recognize their strength to herald conversation for equity and acceptance.  

Any last words?

We will continue to work towards ensuring that children in Nepal are healthy, educated, protected, and are provided with manifold opportunities to succeed, where their rights and voice are celebrated and recognized. Furthermore, we will not hesitate to use our voice and influence to speak out about issues such as climate crisis, and other issues that directly and indirectly impact children and their wellbeing. At Save the Children, we are committed to working for the best interest of every child, and will continue to listen and seek guidance from children, support them in leveraging their voice and agency, and use our influence to advocate for children in Nepal.

We are in an exciting period in Nepal’s history, as the decentralized system of governance has spotlighted the need for localization, and sharing power to address challenges, and turn them into opportunities. Save the Children is proud to be a strong advocate for localization.  We work with more than 100 local partners, who through a collaborative leadership approach co-design and co-implement strategic programs and projects. We are recognized as a ‘partner of trust’ by communities that we work with and for and have been supporting the government’s plan and policies to ensure an enabling environment for children in Nepal. This partnership of trust, collaboration, and ownership is what we will continue.