QUESTIONING THE ABCs OF WOMEN'S LITERACY

By Robinson-Pant, Anna | UNESCO Courier, October 1999 | Go to article overview

QUESTIONING THE ABCs OF WOMEN'S LITERACY


Robinson-Pant, Anna, UNESCO Courier


By sharing the day-to-day village life of Nepalese women who made the move to attend literacy classes, an inquisitive researcher takes a critical look at what is being taught, and why

As we slipped along the muddy paths, Laxmi took her sandals off and said she was such a green cucumber she should not be going to all this trouble - I blame my parents, she said.(1) Laxmi was on her way to an adult literacy class, held at night in Arutar, her village in Western Nepal. Like almost all the local middle-aged women, she had not been allowed to attend school as a youngster - though her brothers had - but she now saw a chance to catch up on reading and writing. By calling herself "green cucumber", she referred to the common Nepalese saying, "Why eat green cucumber at the time of dying?" Becoming literate - like eating cucumber in this area - is both a luxury and a challenge at this late stage of life. I had been chatting to Laxmi as a friend, but also as part of my research into the links between literacy and development. For eight months, I lived in Arutar to try to find out why women like Laxmi go to such trouble to learn to read and write, and what they feel they have gained from the classes. This period was very much a two-way learning process, since Laxmi and her friends were equally intrigued as to why a Western woman with her four-year-old son should want to live in a village eight hours' walk from a road!

Rejecting the functional approach

In many developing countries, including Nepal, where only 14 per cent of adult women are literate, literacy is often heralded as the entry point for involving women in income-generating activities and improving their health practices. Planners and policy-makers in aid agencies repeatedly underline that better educated mothers have fewer, healthier and better educated children, and are more "productive". However, I had also begun to realize over the years that women attending and running literacy classes don't always share these views. The aid agencies intent on finding linkages between women's literacy rates and development indicators such as child mortality, fertility and nutrition tended to use the words "education" and "literacy" interchangeably. On a micro level, they often evaluated literacy programmes through calculating the percentage of women who went on to join savings and credit groups or the number of families who built latrines.

My own impression was that these women attending classes (as well as their teachers) were less convinced about the development outcomes associated with literacy and made more distinction between "literacy"and "education". Whereas the latter took place in schools and enabled their children to gain good jobs and status, the women regarded "the adult class" as a poor substitute. I heard them say that the certificate given at the end of the course was no use in getting a job - "it's just for ourselves". Observing classes, I was aware of this tension between what the women wanted and the programme's contents. Often this resulted in many dropping out but it was also clear that some were directly challenging what the aid agencies had on offer. In particular, they rejected the "functional literacy" approach to convey messages and skills directly relevant to development activities. To me, the picture was very different from the passive stereotype often presented of the poor third world woman grateful to learn to read information about improving her family life. These women already knew about family planning and nutrition and if they did not use this knowledge, it was because either they had no physical access to health facilities or they disagreed with the new ideas. They had not joined the literacy class to discuss health, forestry or credit facilities, but to learn to read and write - sometimes for practical purposes such as account keeping or writing letters, but often just to feel educated like their husbands and children. …

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