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close this bookGender Issues in Literacy Education (IRMA, 1997, 22 p.)
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View the documentAbstract
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentGender subordination, poverty and literacy2
View the documentGender and literacy: What does research and evaluation say
View the documentGender, literacy and empowerment
View the documentIntegrating gender concerns in literacy planning
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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.