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close this bookGender Issues in Literacy Education (IRMA, 1997, 22 p.)
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Ila Patel (IRMA) and Anita Dighe (NIAE)
Institute of Rural Management, Anand 388001
January 1997

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The problem of illiteracy is grave amongst women in India and other South Asian countries. Despite progress in female education over the past four decades, the vast majority of women have remained illiterate. What accounts for widespread illiteracy among women? Which factors contribute to sustaining women’s literacy? This paper highlights key gender issues in literacy education. It is divided into four sections. The first section articulates the conceptual framework that examines how gender subordination and poverty contributes to illiteracy among women in developing countries. The next two sections highlight salient observations on the interplay between gender and literacy on the basis of recent research and documentation on women’s literacy in India, while the final section discusses key gender concerns that need to be integrated in literacy planning.

The purpose of the Working Paper Series (WPS) is to provide an opportunity to IRMA faculty, visiting fellows, and students to sound out their ideas and research work before publication and to get feedback and comments from their peer group. A Working Paper is not to be considered a formal research publication of the Institute.


The ability to read and write is becoming a fundamental need in an increasingly technological and modern society. However, despite phenomenal growth of the formal educational systems in the past four decades and increase in literacy rates in most developing countries, the vast majority of the population has still remained illiterate. According to the World Education Report of 1993, there were 874 million illiterate adults in 1990, of which 567 million were (65 per cent) women (UNESCO, 1993).

Who have remained illiterate? In general, illiteracy is characteristically found among poor people in rural areas and marginal groups in urban areas. Particularly, the rural poor, women and ethnic minorities, who have somehow missed the benefits of modernisation and democratisation of the state and society, have remained illiterate. Illiteracy is also widespread among people who speak unofficial and unstandardised languages, which are often not targeted for literacy programmes.

In India, the problem of illiteracy is grave amongst women. At one level, there is considerable progress in terms of female education. The female literacy rate has steadily gone up from 7.9 percent in 1951 to 39.4 percent in 1991 (Table 1). However, a closer look at the progress of literacy reveals the widening gender gap over the years. The alarming fact is that despite the progress in the female literacy rate during 1981-91, the proportion of female illiterates, particularly in urban areas, is steadily growing (Figure 1).

Furthermore, the problem of illiteracy among adult women is exacerbated due to low enrolment and high drop-out rates among rural girls who enter the formal schools. While the enrolment of girls has gone up in India, it is still not commensurate with the enrolment rate of boys. The drop-out rate among girls.1

This paper is based on the theme papers prepared by the authors for one-day workshop on Gender and Literacy for the Workshop on Gender Issues in Development, Policy, Planning and Practice, organised by the Institute of Rural Management, Anand during April 1-19, 1996.

Table 1: Gender Gap in Literacy in India particularly those who live in rural areas, continues to be very high (Nayar 1993). Regions that have low ratios of female to male literacy also have significant disparities at the first level of education.


Literacy Rate (Percentage)

Gender Gap* (Percentage)





























Figures indicate percentage to the corresponding population.

* The gender gap is indicated by the difference between the literacy rate of male and female.

** Excludes Assam where the Census of 1981 was not held.

+ Excludes Jammu and Kashmir where the Census of 1991 was not held. Literacy rates for 1991 are based on estimated population aged 7 years and above.

Source: Ministry of Human Resource Development (1988:7) and Prem Chand (1992:5).

What accounts for widespread illiteracy among women? What are the gender-related factors that contribute to and sustain women’s literacy? This paper highlights key issues in understanding the interplay between gender and literacy. It is divided into four sections. The first section articulates the conceptual framework that examines how gender subordination and poverty contributes to illiteracy among women in developing countries. The next two sections highlight salient observations on the interplay between gender and literacy on the basis of recent research and documentation on women’s literacy in India. While the final section discusses key gender concerns that need to be integrated in literacy planning.

Gender subordination, poverty and literacy2

Significance of education of girls and women is well recognised by development planners due to multiple benefits that accrue to women and their family. Despite economic and social benefits derived from women’s education, why does the vast majority of women in India and other developing countries continue to remain illiterate? Why do women continue to receive lower levels of education than men in society? What does the research and evaluation say about accounting for women’s illiteracy. We need to examine the situation of women’s education from a perspective that goes beyond a simple socio-economic analysis of lack of education among women.

Illiteracy is not merely a problem due to lack of parental motivation to educate children or a problem of access to education. It doesn’t occur at random, but is typically the plight of poor and powerless people. Illiteracy is essentially a manifestation of social inequality, the unequal distribution of power and resources in society.

What are the gender-related factors that contribute to and sustain female illiteracy? The feminist framework that helps us understand women’s subordination in all spheres of women’s life is useful in understanding why the vast majority of women in developing countries have remained uneducated. Stromquist (1990) argues that the gender division of labour and the control of women’s sexuality, reinforces women’s subordination in society and influences women’s educational participation. Patriarchal ideology plays an important role in defining gender roles. It emphasises women’s primary roles as mothers, wives and housewives. Social acculturation of men and women, sanctioned by religious and cultural practices, reinforces gender division of labour, which is manifest in a wide range of requirements and taboos. For example, focusing on skills and competencies related to women’s reproductive roles and responsibilities and avoiding entering careers or fields, which are perceived as not “feminine.”

Men’s control over women’s sexuality is one of the key elements in the subordination of women. The control over women’s sexuality is manifest in several norms, such as “virginity, limited physical mobility, the penalisation of abortion and the association of the use of contraceptives with sexual promiscuity” (ibid. p. 98). The practice of “purdah” or enforced physical separation of women from men upon reaching puberty also reflects controls over women’s sexuality. The underlying rationale for such practice is that a woman’s honour needs to be protected and that men are simultaneously the enforcers and the violaters of the norms.

The conceptual framework articulated in this section is based on Stromquist (1990).

The social practice of early marriage of daughters, prevalent in many developing countries, affects both, parental view of level of education daughters need and women’s aspirations for future education. When women marry early, the level of education considered adequate for marriage and motherhood is low. Similarly, women’s inability to control the number and spacing of their children also affects their availability for learning and other social activities.

The problem of illiteracy among adults is also rooted in the lack of education of children. In many developing countries, there is higher primary school repetition, attrition and overage among rural children, particularly from poor families, who start working in farm and non-farm activities at a tender age to contribute to the family’s meagre income. However, numerous studies have shown that girls are more likely than boys to drop out before completing their primary school. Daughters bear far greater burden of domestic and reproductive work than sons, helping their mothers in cooking, fetching fuel, fodder and water, and taking care of siblings. Furthermore, prevailing social customs favour investments in the education of sons over daughters. Thus, the significance of education for girls and women is shaped by the existing gender division in society.

On the other hand, illiteracy is intertwined with poverty. It is experienced mostly by poor and socially disadvantaged women, who are bound more severely by patriarchal constraints. They spend considerable time for domestic and reproductive activities and work for survival in subsistence agriculture or in the informal sector, which unquestionably affects their educational participation. Thus, rural and poor women face constraints in terms of time, space and societal expectations for education.

Illiteracy among women is often attributed to their lack of motivation to participate in literacy programmes or to regularly attend literacy classes. Motivation for learning implies a great deal of autonomy for the individual. Poor women who daily struggle for survival do not have such autonomy.

Furthermore, physical, material and ideological obstacles also work against women’s participation in literacy classes. Women’s physical mobility, in general, is limited by patriarchal constraints. Social sanction is required from the family members and the community, when a woman would like to attend a literacy class or participate in a group at the local level. Her limited social contacts with the outside world also becomes an important determining factor in shaping her chances to become literate. Limited social interaction leads to the internalisation of a poor self-image and low self-esteem for learning.

Literacy reflects both a desire as well as a threat for women. Women’s desire to become literate is evident in the fact that their enrolment in many literacy programmes is considerably high (Lind 1992). Thus, women do not lack motivation to become literate when favourable conditions are created to facilitate their participation in literacy classes. The education for women, however, can be a powerful tool to domesticity, reinforcing their roles as mothers, wives and caretakers. At the same time, education can also enable women to develop ability to think more analytically and question their social reality. Specifically, the self-confidence and self-esteem, assertiveness and egalitarian beliefs that women may develop through such education can threaten those who benefit from women’s unpaid work and docile attitude.

Gender and literacy: What does research and evaluation say

In general, the illiteracy problem among women has not received adequate academic attention in India. Women’s literacy is a recent subject of inquiry, conditioned by the marginal status of literacy research in the broader context of educational research. Educational researchers have neither paid adequate attention to examining gender issues in adult literacy nor have undertaken systematic research on women’s literacy (Stromquist 1990, Dighe and Patel 1993). The following observations can be made about the interplay between gender and literacy on the basis of a review of recent research on women’s literacy in India.

1. Women’s participation in adult literacy programmes:

In general, programme evaluation research dominates the field of adult education research in India and elsewhere (Patel 1996). These studies are important source of information about learners, their participation in adult education centres/classes and learning outcomes. A review of 88 evaluation studies conducted by various research institutions and agencies in India revealed that only two of them focused specifically on women.

While most evaluation studies included women in the sample as learners and as volunteers/instructors, and sporadically highlight sex differences in enrolment in literacy classes, there has been no systematic attempt to understand the extent and nature of women’s participation in literacy programmes and to ascertain the impact of literacy on women’s lives. Except for presenting sex differences in some of the tables, most of the studies do not even attempt to explain or analyse why such differences exist. Since the primary focus of the evaluation studies has been on the numbers made literate, research questions relating to women’s literacy from a critical perspective have been ignored.

Evaluation research on large-scale adult education programmes and Total Literacy Campaigns show that women do desire to participate in literacy programmes in disproportionately large numbers when favourable conditions are created to facilitate their participation in literacy classes. Yet, several questions relating to their participation have been left unanswered. No systematic attempt is made to ascertain women’s expectations in joining the literacy classes, or the levels of literacy reached by them or of the impact of literacy on their lives.

2. The Social Dimension of Literacy:

It is important to understand the social dimension of literacy in order to understand women’s participation in literacy classes. Literacy classes provide an opportunity to a large number of women learners and volunteers to meet, to talk and to share, and break their isolation which is socially structured into their lives. On the other hand, there are some characteristics of an adult literacy programme that promote women’s participation in literacy classes.

Dighe’s study (1994b) on the Total Literacy Campaign by the Delhi Saksharata Samiti in Ambedkarnagar, a resettlement colony in south Delhi, shows that women had strong personal and social reasons for participating in the literacy campaign. A large number of them had a strong desire for learning and liked to go to the literacy classes because a literacy class gave them an opportunity to meet others and to study collectively.3 Thus, literacy classes provided women learners with a social space, away from home and offered them an opportunity to meet in a group to share their common experiences about work, family, and illness. For many women it was probably the first time that they could see on a collective scale that their personal situations were not unique.

These are undoubtedly some important aspects of a literacy programme. Large scale social mobilisation that is elicited by literacy campaigns and programmes obtains a ‘social sanction’ for women’s participation in literacy programmes. Various patriarchal considerations that hinder their participation become at least temporarily inoperative as women come out of their homes and take part in the literacy campaigns with great enthusiasm.

There are other characteristics of a literacy programme that promote women’s participation. Participation of women in literacy classes is also facilitated when literacy classes take into consideration constraints that poor women face in terms of time, space and social expectations (ibid.). For example, participation of women in literacy classes is facilitated when literacy classes take place in the immediate neighbourhood of women learners; the literacy volunteers largely come from the same milieu as the learners and are known to the learners; each literacy class sets its own hours depending upon the convenience of the learners; the classes have a low learner-volunteer ratio and there is generally a good relationship between the volunteer and the learners.

A study of a literacy programme in the Sao Paolo slums also showed that unintentionally literacy classes offered women an opportunity to meet together in a group of women with similar constraints and often, with similar experiences of poverty and subordination (Stromquist 1994).

3. Literacy Attainment among Women:

Despite increased participation of women in literacy classes, there is very limited critical research on the level of literacy attainment by women. Most evaluation studies on Total Literacy Campaigns report sex differences in literacy attainment, but do not probe further variable levels of literacy acquired by men and women.

Dighe’s study (1994b) highlights some of the problems associated with low performance among women in literacy tests. The study showed that of the 100 women who had supposedly completed the three IPCL primers, only 16 were able to reach the norm set by the National Literacy Mission (NLM). This was attributed to several practical problems in administration of the test, for example, fatigue caused by the administration of a long questionnaire and time gap between the closure of literacy classes and test administration (eight months). Furthermore, lack of sustained post-literacy interventions appeared to have contributed to relapse into illiteracy among a sizeable number of women learners when the literacy test was administered.

Nevertheless, the study showed that by and large the respondents did not use the reading, writing and numeracy skills in their everyday life. This was particularly true in the case of writing skills. However, those with higher literacy scores were more likely to apply the reading, writing and numeracy skills in their everyday life as compared to those with low literacy scores. These findings have implications for most literacy programmes, sponsored by the government or donor agencies, which are time-bound and target-oriented. Inflated statistics on the number of people made literate undoubtedly conceal the variable levels of literacy reached by women. More research is required to understand acquisition and retention of literacy among women.

The post-literacy and continuing education programmes, introduced after the basic literacy phase, are envisaged to sustain and consolidate the fragile literacy skills of the neo-literates. It is assumed that adult learning takes place in a classroom-like linear progression from one grade to another. Progress of learning among rural women, however, may not follow such a pattern. On the basis of an innovative action research project in Banda, Dungarpur and Puddukotai districts, Misra, Ghose and Bhog (1994) show how any post-literacy and continuing education for rural women must be linked to their immediate environment. This study showed that in so far as poor rural women are concerned, there is no linear progression from literacy to post-literacy to continuing education. When women learners start participating in their own educational development, an ever-expanding spiral of learning is catalysed to promote active learning among women. More systematic interdisciplinary research is required to understand literacy learning among women.

4. Pedagogic Material and Methods:

Pedagogic material and methods play an important role in sustaining women’s literacy. However, there is hardly any research that enables us to understand how literacy curriculum is transacted in the literacy classes and what kind of teaching and learning materials and methods are used.

Dighe’s study (1994b) showed that despite TLC training to literacy volunteers that emphasised participatory teaching-learning process, the literacy volunteers felt more comfortable in using the formal methods of teaching literacy. Even discussions on the themes in the literacy primers were minimal. In other words, the main emphasis remained on imparting technical skills of reading, writing, and numeracy to the learners. This was because the translation of a theme (expressed in words/sentences) into sustained dialogue, requires skills that the literacy volunteers did not have. Also, because most of the literacy volunteers were school students, their youth and relative inexperience in life, also militated against the use of other non-traditional methods of teaching. Clearly, any participatory, dialogical interaction between the learners and the literacy volunteers would require sustained and on-going training support of a different kind.

The experiences of the Women’s Development Programme (WDP), Mahila Samakhya and various voluntary organisations have shown how the attitudes of the functionaries as well as the participatory processes of literacy learning elicit and encourage women for acquiring basic literacy skills and creating the right conditions for sustaining learning.

Furthermore, the learning process itself is very critical in so far as women learners are concerned. Srivastava and Sharma (1990) and Patel (1991) found that besides a flexible and learner-centred approach, the use of folk songs and literacy games breaks the monotony and repetitiveness of learning and makes learning more enjoyable and less daunting for women. The learning process must also encourage experience-sharing among women learners - women talking about themselves, their problems, their needs - in order to take collective action for ameliorating their present conditions.

The WDP and Mahila Samakhya have taught an invaluable lesson that a process of critical analysis and reflection, leading to collective action, is crucial if women have to be empowered at the individual and collective levels. Presently, little effort has been made in the evaluation studies to understand how literacy curriculum is transacted in the literacy classes.

5. Representation of Women in Literacy Primers:

Literacy for women can be a powerful tool to domesticity, reinforcing their roles as mothers, wives and caretakers. Literacy primers can focus on developing literacy skills of women, while emphasising existing patriarchal values. Research evidence pertaining to gender issues in adult literacy curriculum is fragmentary. However, a few studies highlight how gender ideology is constructed in literacy primers through stereotyped images and themes.

A study of seven primers used in North India by government agencies and non-governmental organisations revealed that the main content of these primers was housework, child care and family planning (Bhasin 1984). While the Gujarati literacy primers for women focused primarily on women’s roles as wives and mothers and ignored their role as productive workers (Patel 1986).

A detailed analytical study of literacy primers, used in the six states of Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu and Uttar Pradesh, reveals that despite emphasising “women’s equality” as one of the core values of the literacy curriculum of Total Literacy Campaigns, the literacy primers in fact promote the ideology of domestication in so far as women are concerned and fails to promote critical understanding of women’s subordination in society (Dighe, Patel and Others, 1996). The content of the literacy primers has neither challenged the existing gender division of labour nor questioned discriminatory practices against women in society. Overall, women’s principle responsibility remains within the confines of the home and it is the nurturing, nursing, caring role as a mother and as a housewife that is emphasised in the primers.

Acquisition of literacy skills by a woman is considered to be important in order to increase her overall efficiency as a housewife so that she can cook better and look after the children better. The basic thrust is ‘blame the victim’ so that women are blamed for lack of initiative, lack of information and incorrect attitudes. There is thus no attempt made to develop critical understanding among women of the reasons for their caste, class and gender oppression. From an analysis of the literacy primers, it is apparent that TLCs are envisaged as a ‘safe’ literacy programme for upholding patriarchal values besides promoting the benign role of the state.

Gender, literacy and empowerment

In recent years, the concept of “education for women’s empowerment” has gained legitimacy and recognition not only among women’s activist groups, but also among development planners. As a matter of fact, several governments and institutions are now including ‘empowerment’ in their discourse and are actively seeking partnerships with women’s groups that are increasingly focusing their attention on women’s empowerment.

What do we mean by empowerment? Stromquist (1995) attempts to grapple with the theoretical base of empowerment.4 She argues that empowerment in its emancipatory meaning is a concept that brings out a broader analysis of human rights and social justice. In the context of patriarchal society, empowerment is a process to change the unequal distribution of power, both in interpersonal relations and in institutions throughout society.

4 Also refer to Batliwala (1993) for discussion on different a pproaches/strategies that are being used in South Asia to empower women.

It is within the broader concerns for women’s empowerment in development planning that the concept of education for women’s empowerment has been gaining ground.5 The term ‘empowerment’ in the context of women’s education is considered to be particularly relevant because it refers to a range of activities from individual self-assertion to collective resistance, protest and mobilisation, that challenge basic power relations. According to this understanding, literacy is regarded as an important skill whereby women acquire the ability to read, write and compute and thereby, gain access to knowledge and information that had hitherto been denied to them. However, literacy can be empowering only if it enables women to question their own beliefs about themselves, gradually develop self-confidence and a positive self-image so that they begin to appreciate their own capacities and potentials (Ramdas 1990a). Thus, literacy for women’s empowerment aims at changing the nature and direction of systemic forces which marginalise women in a given social, economic and political milieu.

5 Refer to Medel-Anonuevo (1995) for discussion on women’s education and empowerment to understand educational practices and their theoretical implications for empowering women.

In India, one of the earliest attempts to provide meaningful education to poor women was made through the Women’s Development Programme (WDP) of Rajasthan in India and subsequently, through the Mahila Samakhya (Education for Women’s Equality) which has been in operation in some districts of U.P., Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.6 The starting point in these programmes is an investigation of the socio-economic reality by women, an examination of the problems faced by them, a process of critical analysis leading to collective action against injustices suffered by them in the home, the work place and society. Literacy is not imposed on women - rather they are allowed to seek literacy at a point when its meaning and value become evident to them. Literacy is thus not viewed as an end in itself, limited to teaching of 3Rs alone, but as part of an overall strategy of empowerment. The educational process enables women to ask questions, seek answers, act, reflect on actions and raise new questions. As women have collectively addressed themselves to problems of fuel, child care and income generation, they have realised that the problems are linked at a very fundamental level to the question of access to authentic information and hence to literacy.

6 Refer to Jain, Srivastava and Others (1986) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (1991) for details on the WDP and Mahila Samakhya respectively.

As women have gradually become empowered at the individual and collective levels, they have been able to address themselves to problems such as access to drinking water, payment of minimum wages, access to health services, ensuring the functioning of the village school, as well as children’s participation in education, and have taken collective action against domestic and social violence. Every issue that has been taken up by women has resulted in an educational activity. When the women’s collective (mahila sangha) has decided to take up an issue for debate or action, it has involved a systematic analysis of the problem, collection of necessary information, visit to the ‘block’ or district headquarters, and collective planning on the course of action. Mahila Samakhya has given women a voice in the villages, provided legal and administrative support and has made systematic endeavours to improve women’s access to the available educational and developmental facilities. In this manner, the Mahila Samakhya approach has become an integral part of the strategy for mobilising women for participation in development.

While this is an interesting development, a moot point is, would the state which is intrinsically patriarchal in nature, really promote women’s education that would empower them? Two recent experiences from India highlight the nature of the space provided by the state in government-funded initiatives.

The case of Bhanwari Devi, a Sathin (village level worker) in the WDP in Rajasthan, who was gang raped by men of a socially dominant community, is now well known in India. One of the stated objectives of WDP is to empower women. Yet, when this active, articulate village woman campaigned against child marriages on directions from the state government, she was not only sexually assaulted and raped, the state has continued to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of this woman and to the women’s groups who have demanded justice (Navlakha 1995).

Another experience is that of the anti-arrack (country liquor) agitation in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh (Dighe 1994a). As part of the literacy campaign, as village women started coming together in the literacy classes, they not only discussed the general problems of the village but also talked about the evils of excessive drinking. Their discussions focused on how in many families the men drank all they earned and how women had to work and run the household on their earnings and get beaten daily in the bargain by their drunken husbands.

What sparked the agitation was a lesson in the post-literacy primer that described an incident that had actually taken place in one of the villages in Nellore district.7 In this village, the women of the village had stopped the vending of ‘arrack’ after two men had died after a bout of drinking. As the primer with this lesson was introduced in the post-literacy centres, it had an electrifying impact on women. In several villages, women’s committees were formed and gradually the agitation against the sale of arrack engulfed the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. It was clearly a case of women getting empowered and spearheading an agitation that elicited the support of political parties, voluntary organisations, women’s groups, and civil liberties organisations.

7 Refer to Shatrugna (1992) for a brief discussion on how a literacy campaign in Nellore district contributed to the anti-arrack agitation.

But the success of the agitation suffered a setback when the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh first branded such work as ‘anti-government,’ then ordered that the provocative lesson be expunged and even threatened strict action against those government functionaries who supported the movement and worked actively for it. Elsewhere in the state, women were beaten up, kidnapped, and terrorised. Interestingly, in the case of the anti-arrack agitation, it was the forging of links with mass organisations that sustained and even intensified the agitation so that very soon it spread to other districts of Andhra Pradesh (Ilaiah 1992). The rural women of Andhra Pradesh scored a major victory when in early 1993, the Chief Minister did a complete about-turn and announced that ‘arrack’ would be banned in Nellore with immediate effect.

These two incidents highlight the variable response of the state as women get empowered - from callous indifference in one case to blatant repression in the other. Given this experience, a question is raised about the desirability of the women’s groups working collaboratively with the government on any programme whose stated objective is to empower women (Malika and Others 1993). While the advantages of the partnership are greater outreach, access to resources, and more stability, the fear on the part of the women’s groups is that such a relationship invariably leads to their cooption - for an illusion is created that there is space for women’s rights and that their demands will be met. In reality, however, the patriarchal state represents the interests of the dominant class and caste groups and does not tolerate any collectivisation of women’s strength. If this is so, it then becomes incumbent for women to organise as women and as workers first and then to forge links with the wider social movements that struggle against all forms of exploitation.

Integrating gender concerns in literacy planning

Historically, as well as today, women constitute a majority of non-literate adults in India as well as in many developing countries. Women do participate in literacy programmes in disproportionately large numbers. Yet, while planning large-scale literacy programmes development planners seldom take into consideration factors that facilitate or hinder women’s participation in literacy programmes.8

8 Refer to Ramdas (1990b), Camrack (1992) and Dighe (1995) for discussion on gender issues in literacy programmes.

A question that needs to be asked is, why has there been a tendency to ignore or underplay fundamental issues relating to illiteracy and special educational needs of adult women? Feminists are of the view that this is because men are in positions of power and decision-making, where patriarchal values prevail. Male dominance in literacy policy making has invariably resulted in ‘time-bound’ plans and projects that do not come to grips with the structural constraints such as the social and cultural factors that condition attitudes towards women and women’s education. Since poor women constitute the majority of non-literate adults, they are conveniently blamed for their lack of participation in educational programmes due to poor motivation.

Furthermore, the neglect of education of illiterate women is due to the welfare orientation of the government towards women (Patel 1987). In general, the government has attempted to improve the status and conditions of women through welfare programmes which emphasise their home-based and reproductive role in society. As a result, most adult literacy programmes for women have reinforced women’s role as wives and mothers and ignored the productive role they play in society. Despite lip service to ‘integrating’ women in the development process, women’s education has been viewed in isolation. Seldom has an attempt been made to link women’s education to the larger social and economic policies that impinge upon their educational needs.

What is then offered to women are ‘safe’ literacy programmes, which affirm the value of literacy within the context of accepted roles of women. The possibility that women might be interested in developing literacy skills as a way out of confining roles and relationships within the family or as a way to exert more control within their own lives, is underplayed in such programmes.

Thus, women as learners are especially affected by unimaginative planning and implementation strategies of most literacy programmes that fail to take note of their specific needs. In general, most literacy programmes, including the TLCs in India, have not yet paid special attention to gender-based needs, specially the unique needs of women for participating in literacy classes. Given the fact that in everyday existence, women’s experiences are different from those of men as their acculturation patterns are dissimilar, we need to integrate gender concerns in planning for literacy programmes. Literacy programmes should now be so designed that they will not only educate women, but will also enable them to see and understand more clearly ways in which society shapes their perceptions, even their ways of knowing. Such an educational intervention would not only better meet women’s needs and learning styles but would have a conscious intent of not reinforcing society’s perception of women’s needs as being subordinate to family and that of society at large.

Hence, it is imperative that large-scale literacy programmes such as the TLCs should now strive to give women more than the three R’s so that they are equipped to combat forces that give rise to their oppression and subordination. While recognising the importance of reading, writing and numeracy skills, if women are to make changes in their lives, critical thinking skills and the ability to realistically assess possible alternatives available to them, are also a necessity. In India, given the policy directive for education to play ‘a positive interventionist role in the empowerment of women’ such a shift becomes urgent.

It is important to identify the gender-related factors that contribute to and sustain female illiteracy so that special efforts can be made to ensure that gender concerns are integrated into on-going literacy programmes. Social acculturation reinforces the belief that usefulness of literacy is limited for women due to their primary role as a wife and a mother. While men’s claims on knowledge and learning are perceived to be superior to that of women. The educational process of the literacy programme must foster critical thinking and support women to create their own knowledge. Or else women will continue to uncritically accept what the literacy programme offers as sexism which is so ingrained in their acculturation.

Internalisation of gender subordination also contributes to women’s lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem to approach literacy learning. Many of them even regard their learning disabilities as natural and normal. This has implications for the organisation of literacy programmes for women. In order to overcome this attitude, it will have to be ensured that the learning process enables women to experience a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence.

Selection of a language for imparting literacy is an important issue in planning for a literacy programme for women. Language used in literacy primers subtly contributes to reinforcing women’s subordination in society and feelings of inadequacy and incompetency among women as learners. In general, women with limited physical mobility and social contacts are most comfortable with the local dialect used in their daily life. Unfamiliarity and exposure to the standard or official language, used by most literacy programmes, affects women’s fragile confidence to approach learning and becomes a stumbling block in the process of literacy acquisition. While men, in general, have greater exposure to the outside world, which not only expands their horizons, but also increases their familiarity with standard language(s) used in the market places as well as by the state. Such exposure facilitates their acquisition of literacy in an official/standard language.

Then, there are intangible barriers that precipitate women’s dropping out of the literacy classes or non-continuance in the continuing education programmes. These relate to male attitudes, lack of family support, institutional barriers such as lack of support systems (for example, creche facilities, easy access to fuel, fodder and water, etc.), or an insensitive curriculum or a teaching-learning process that is not conducive for continuing with education.

What has been attempted in this section is to raise some issues relating to literacy planning for women. Concerted attention would have to be paid to these issues and appropriate implementation strategies worked out if large scale literacy programmes have to become sensitive to gender issues.

In conclusion, most literacy programmes for women have a myopic vision. Literacy is presumed to make women efficient workers, mothers and wives. The main thrust of most government-sponsored literacy programmes is changing attitudes and behaviours of learners to increase their active participation in various development sectors. Thus, acquisition of literacy skills is widely recognised as an end in itself. In reality, acquisition of literacy skills is not a felt need of the poor rural women for whom the task of meeting survival needs is the primary challenge. There is presently little awareness among policy makers and planners about how literacy needs fit into the hierarchy of survival needs women have in everyday life. But more importantly, there is little understanding about the kind of literacy that would be most relevant to the needs of poor women. This understanding of literacy for women will have to change.

Thus, it will have to be recognised that literacy for poor women must become a means for acquiring knowledge and skills whereby women can begin to understand and analyse unequal gender relations and the structure of poverty and exploitation in society so that they can collectively challenge the existing social reality (Ramdas 1990a). Literacy will then take on a larger meaning and will be regarded as a tool whereby women’s access to information, knowledge and thereby to power, will become possible. As poor women begin to acquire literacy, they must also begin to exercise control over themselves, their bodies, over decisions that affect their lives in the home, the community and society at large. In other words, literacy has to be perceived as a means for empowering women in the wider struggle against inequality and injustice in society.


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