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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, 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.