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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Literacy (and health)  are basic indicators of the development achieved by a society. When 9,899 Indian villages do not have a single literate female, the country has a long way to go, says Ronita Torcato

On September 8, India and the world celebrated the 51st International Literacy Day. UNESCO, which has been central to improving global literacy since 1946, held a two-day special event at its  Paris headquarters. In Delhi, the National Literacy Mission (NLM) organised a panel discussion headed by Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javadekar. The NLM  is a nationwide programme  which was launched in 1988  by Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Approximately 125.6 million  have already been made literate under the NLM. The bad news is India still has 3,077 villages which are totally illiterate. And as many as 9,899 villages do not have a single literate female!

"If the village perishes, India will perish too.” India, as Mahatma Gandhi famously observed more than half a century ago, “lives in her villages.” Since Gandhiji made that statement, little has changed for villagers. In Delhi, Mr Javdekar said the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (which was launched in 2004 by the Manmohan Singh government) would be expanded from Class 6-8 to Class 6-12. Again, this is a welcome announcement considering that out of 561 million literates, 145 million literates are educated only up to Below Primary level and another 147 million up to Primary level.

"NGOs have been doing great work but adult education programmes should be started by the government which should give women a generous stipend to attend these classes," suggests Pamela Ayres, an ex-teacher of the Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee High School in Mumbai.

"The government should create opportunities for women to become more literate and later, these women could even serve as substitute teachers," says Joan Soares, retired Vice Principal of St Xavier's High School, Fort, which has been running since 1948, a Night School whose current roll includes a 70-plus-year-old man. Adult education classes are also held at the K. R. Cama Institute and TISS's Centre for Lifelong Learning  for groups getting trained for their continuing education and for those who have not had  access to the formal education system and want training or short-term vocational programmes.

The Teach For India Fellowship programme encourages youth to volunteer as full-time teachers to children from low-income communities in some of the most under-resourced schools. Groups like Save the Children, among others, are working to improve reading and writing skills worldwide. The Door Step School in Mumbai and Pune addresses literacy among children of slum dwellers, construction site workers and other underprivileged families.

The paradox is, higher literacy has not led to greater decision-making power. It's bad enough literacy hasn't translated into the skill to decipher a bill or read a newspaper; worse, many Indian women have little say in decision-making. Less than 5% of women had sole control over choosing their husbands, while 80% needed permission to visit a health centre or grocery store, according to a survey of 34,000 urban and rural women between the ages of 15 and 81, in 34 Indian states and union territories. Ultra-orthodox Muslim communities deny their women, any agency at all, mandating male escorts in public.

This should not deter India from pursuing the United Nations' Sustainable Development goals of  eradicating poverty and inequalities across the world, of which improving literacy rates is an important element. After all, the ability to read and write progressed very slowly throughout history. Books were rare and handwritten by scribes and the invention of the printing press in 1450 in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg whose first prints were a poem, a calendar and a Bible, made it easier for books to be  distributed across Europe. But literacy was still a luxury confined to the European elite and in India, to the Brahmins who did not print and publish, but committed  knowledge to memory, passing it on to their students in gurukuls.  Of the the 3Rs (reading/writing/arithmetic), Indians were tops in the third, but backward in the first two. Learning was by rote and the pernicious caste system excluded certain groups but there is (literary) evidence of girls and boys studying side by side in gurukuls in ancient India. Globally by 1820, barely 12 percent of the world’s population knew how to read a book or write their name. Today,  87% of young women and 92% of young men know the rudiments of reading and writing, according to the UN. Of the rest who do not,  Muslim women account for the highest number of illiterates.

The lack of literacy skills has long-lasting impact on the quality of life, in terms of job opportunities and financial security. In India, low female workforce participation persists, notwithstanding high economic growth since the Manmohan Singh era.  Inequality based on gender differences  and socio-religious background are significant factors in women's low employment. Unsurprisingly, the gap is more in the rural areas. Obviously, these problems cannot be addressed by literacy alone. The sooner, misogyny and patriarchy disappears, the better for all concerned.

Short takes

On September 8, India and the world celebrated the 51st International Literacy Day.

While both men and women are impacted by illiteracy, women tend to be less educated.

Women should be encouraged to join adult literacy classes.

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