Until recently women's literacy was not given particular priority - despite the fact that levels of illiteracy amongst women are much higher than those amongst men worldwide. Between 1960 and 1985 the overall number of illiterates in the world rose by 154 million and of those, 133 million were women.
Along with other factors, illiteracy increases women's marginalisation from power. Yet, in the past most literacy campaigns have had male themes and male issues as dominant.
This is despite the fact that more and more research suggests the critical importance of women's literacy (see Bown's work "Women, Literacy and Development" ACTIONAID 1990). In a rural area, women are more likely to retain skills in the community for the good of the community (and pass them on to children) whereas men's literacy particularly in rural areas often causes migration (as they see literacy as an urban skill enabling them to get work).
When literacy programmes have focussed on women, particularly in recent years, they have often placed an emphasis on issues affecting the domestic role of women - whether nutrition, child-care or hygiene - ignoring and even undermining the productive and community roles of women. Existing roles are thus usually reinforced. Where there is a conscious attempt to challenge existing roles the result is often a very didactic approach with outsiders lecturing women about their oppression. It is very rare to find a programme which will provide women with space to reflect upon their roles and come to their own conclusions through their own analysis.
This shift towards recognising the importance of women's literacy may however impact negatively on men. Recent evaluations of the government literacy programmes in Uganda and Namibia note a growing trend for literacy to be seen as a "women's thing" which directly or indirectly excludes men. It is important to avoid this and to see the literacy process as something relevant to both men and women - ensuring that all themes are handled in a gender sensitive way. In some contexts there is a strong case for women's only groups. If these are supported, parallel access to separate classes for men should also be considered.
The importance of literacy within the wider process of women's empowerment has become increasingly apparent in recent years. In the Cairo Conference on Population women's literacy was agreed as one of the most effective (and least controversial) means to reduce population growth. The Beijing Conference reiterated this and placed women's literacy at the centre of the empowerment process.
However, all this support in theory has rarely been translated into practical support - because large question marks remain over the effectiveness of adult literacy programmes. Whilst most adult literacy programmes are failing (as highlighted by Abadzi), the rhetoric delivered at international conferences will be of limited value as it is unlikely that any new resources invested in women's literacy will have a significant impact. The mould of past literacy practice needs to be broken if some of these recent commitments to women's literacy are going to be translated into effective programmes on the ground.
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