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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 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.