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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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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.