New Literacy Programme Empowers Village Women in India

The women of West Bengal’s Purulia district have been striding towards change for the last few years now, transforming the livelihood status and economic condition of hundreds of families. Aided by Pradan, a non-profit working on creating sustainable livelihood in the region, it’s a women-powered Self-Help Group (SHG) revolution that has acted as the catalyst.

Today, for instance, women of 184 SHGs in the Barrabazar Block have managed to build a collective corpus fund of one crore ninety lakh rupees in the bank – no small feat for those who have spent the greater part of their lives living below the poverty line. But with the money coming in another critical concern started plaguing them: As illiterate or semi-literate women, how were they to manage their earnings? How were they to understand the workings of a bank? How were they to sign cheques or deposit cash if they couldn’t read, write or recognise numbers?

Says Sujala Murmu, 35, of village Tuima Baradi, “We feared that we might be cheated. We were making payments, takings loans, paying interest to the bank – all blindly, on trust. This concerned us greatly. We wanted to learn to read and write. To know the numbers.”

Literacy has never been strong around these parts – even the 2011 Census gives Purulia an average literacy rate of 65.38. The female literacy rate is a dismal 51.29 compared to a male literacy rate of 78.85. These SHG women worked hard, had the money, but something was still holding them back. “I am illiterate. Will I be able to participate in the meetings properly? How will I speak in front of strangers?” – these were Sadmoni Hembram’s first thoughts as she was elected to represent the women SHG members of her tribal village, which comes under the Sabuj Sathi Nari Shakti Sangha (SSNSS) Federation. And like this 39-year-old from Tilaboni village, who cringed at the thought that she would end up making a fool of herself, there were many across the district suffering from self-doubt.

That’s when Pradan stepped in and initiated a literacy programme, under which village-level Functional Literacy Centres were set up with a focus on adult literacy. It was launched in June 2009 in Barrabazar, Bagmundi and Kashipur blocks, with the support of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT).

Despite a laborious day working in the fields, managing their household chores and collecting firewood from the forest for fuel and for sale, Sujala, Sadmoni, and 2,413 women in 108 centres, religiously attend class. As a result, they can now read and write in Bangla and do basic mathematics. “The learners are a mix of Other Backward Class (OBC), Scheduled Caste (SC) and tribal women. Primarily engaged in agriculture and wage work, they belong to varied age groups, from adolescence to late sixties. As per a baseline survey conducted by us, more than 75 per cent of these women were illiterate or could only sign their name and over 70 per cent belonged to BPL families,” informs Kuntalika Khumbakar, Integrator (state unit), Pradan.

The idea has been to impart literacy and numeral ability to women to make their organisations more relevant for them. “At the same time, we expected the enlightened women to help their respective groups in ensuring greater participation and transparency, adds Khumbakar. That’s exactly what happened.

Take Baramani Maji, 33, the coordinator of Tuima Baradi village. Herself a Class Nine dropout, she is now taking classes for the illiterate women of her SHG, Turla Utnaoi Mahila Samity. She says, “Turla Utnaoi is ‘Alchiki’, meaning ‘for benefit of women’ and I feel that literacy is very useful for all of us. First, I learnt myself; now I teach the women in my group.”

To select teachers for the literacy centres, Pradan conducted a written test. According to Sourangshu Banerjee, Project Executive of Pradan’s Adult Functional Literary Centre Project, the minimum qualification was matriculation. “We found women teachers for all centres in Barrabazar but in Bagmundi block the literacy rate amongst women was so poor that we got only male teachers,” he informs.

Like Baramani Maji, Gurubani Mandi was selected to teach. “I get a salary of Rs 1,200 (US$1=Rs 53) per month and I teach Bengali and mathematics,” she says. Teaching at the centres is a continuous process. The women carry on their studies month after month in phases. Camps are also held in the homes of the teachers or selected places for slow learners.

“Once the basics are through, in the second phase, the women learn to handle calculators, read newspapers and do paragraph writing. They are taught to fill forms as well. So our focus remains functional learning,” points out Banerjee. For training and consulting for this project, Pradan has tied up with Delhi-based women’s resource centre Jagori and Nirantar that empowers women through education.

Murmu started as a student six months ago in her Tuima Baradi village. “Now I know no one can fool me. I understand all the transactions being made by my SHG. I can speak, read and write in Bengali. I have also learnt to do ‘plus’ (addition) and ‘minus’ (subtraction). I am very proud of my abilities. The added advantage is that I can help my children with their schoolwork and maintain family accounts. Earlier, I could not even count!” she says.

This basic education has certainly enabled the women to understand money management better. And following the computerisation of their business model, they are able to properly deal with the computer ‘bandhus’ (friends) and ‘munshis’ (accountants). All the 184 SHGs under Barrabazar block have a central computerised accounting system under which the women drop their transaction slips into a box, which is collected by a computer ‘bandhu’, who takes them to the computer centre where the computer ‘munshi’ creates computerised balance sheets. These are delivered back to the SHGs by the computer ‘bandhus’. Explains Maji, “We pay for the sheets and get accounting details, interest calculations, payments, everything on hand. It was necessary that we learnt how to read and write for this.”

But the women don’t plan to depend on them for long. Elaborates Maji, “I am eager to learn how to use the computer. We want to do the work of computer ‘bandhu’ and ‘munshi’ ourselves. This will be the next step for us.”

It’s obvious that the literacy programme is gradually strengthening women’s leadership abilities and capacities, which will have a long-term impact on the larger processes of development and governance. Social change is also inevitable. Already through plays, prose and poetry recitations and talks, issues like domestic violence, women trafficking and child marriage are being discussed openly.

Most importantly, the confidence crisis and self-doubt has completely vanished. At the ‘mahaadhiveshan’, or mass meeting, of the two umbrella SHG Federations in the district, held in the Barrabazar and Jhalda blocks of Purulia last month, voices of women like Sadmoni Hembram were heard loud and clear. “Today, I can address the Federation gathering with confidence, detailing our achievements with eloquence in front of the Block Development Officer (BDO) and other dignitaries,” says a proud Hembram.

Education and economic empowerment has made a world of difference to Purulia’s women. Now, it’s the turn of the new generation. Mothers are keen to transfer their prosperity and teachings to their daughters. Here’s how Radhika Murmu, 30, puts it, “I have discovered a new interest after I learnt to read and write – that of reading my daughter’s textbooks to her. She will move forward and do much better in life.”

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