Dalit and tribal women in Uttar Pradesh are redefining their lives thanks to a trailblazing adult literacy programme
The statistics are appalling. Nearly 28% of India’s 1.35 billion citizens do not know how to read or write. That adds up to about 378 million unfortunates, handing India the dubious distinction of being the country with the largest number of illiterates in the world.
Adults constitute the vast majority of these people who have never had a chance to get educated, and women outnumber men by far. Try as they might, central and state governments down the years have — a few exceptions aside — struggled to change the situation at a quick enough clip. Supplementary efforts are critical and the need for civil society to lend a helping hand just as much so.
The Tata Trusts have been doing that and more for a long time now and among the most sustained and impactful of these interventions has been a women’s literacy programme that was seeded in 2002. Currently operational in the Lalitpur, Bahraich and Pratapgarh districts of Uttar Pradesh, the programme has enabled more than 60,000 in the state — and in Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar — to lift themselves out of illiteracy.
Women from Dalit and tribal communities in rural regions are the primary target of the initiative, which has seen the Trusts collaborate with a clutch of nonprofits, chief among them Nirantar, a resource organisation working in the field of gender and education. Nirantar provides support with teacher training, learning materials, quality control, monitoring and, not least, in tackling the perennial caste and social issues that plague India.
The intervention was first rolled out in Lalitpur and the choice was deliberate. The district had a literacy rate of under 30% when the programme started and it typified the feudal culture that continues to prevail in so many parts of the country. Not surprisingly, Sahjani Shiksha Kendra (SSK) — the entity created to implement the project — encountered stiff resistance from entrenched interests.
The programme has had to confront an overflow of challenges to get where it has. Gender discrimination is a systemic problem, especially for rural women, as is physical abuse. In the circumstances, an adult woman wanting to become literate is seen as an anomaly. “At the age of 35-40, their desire to study is often questioned and dismissed by the husbands,” says Archana Dwivedi, Nirantar’s director. “We had to work intensively with mothers-in-law as they are often the first point for permission seeking.”
Resistance also came from the community. Being a Dalit or a tribal is a double whammy for women who already have to suffer on account of their gender (in Lalitpur these women are not allowed even today to don footwear in the presence of upper caste folks). Once the family members and community were convinced, the next hurdle was hiring teachers.
When the Sahjani Shiksha Kendra opened a literacy centre in Neemkhera village in Lalitpur district in 2016, Meena (right), a 30-year-old Dalit woman from the Ahirwar community, promptly enrolled herself. Growing up, she had felt deprived of a school education as women in her community weren’t allowed to leave home. And now, given the unlikely chance, she was eager to grab the opportunity.
“My husband was embarrassed and did not want me to attend classes,” recounts Ms Meena. “His friends and other villagers kept asking him why I wanted to learn at such an old age. But she was determined, social pressures be damned, and began attending classes while her husband was away at work. “Here I could share my joys and sorrows with other women, including my teacher. We developed a bond. We understood one another’s difficulties.”
Learning through games and activities was a refreshing break for Ms Meena from her humdrum existence. Through exposure visits, she and her classmates began to understand the workings of institutions like banks and hospitals, and also of government schemes that targeted them. Discussions on violence against women and the constant discrimination they faced at home and beyond led Meena to reflect on her own circumstances.
“Once, when my husband came early from work and saw me studying at the centre, he lost his temper. When I went back home, he beat me up,” says Ms Meena. “I was hurting and sad and did not come to the centre for a few days.” Her teacher visited her at home every day during this time and managed eventually to convince her husband to allow his wife to resume her studies.
Ms Meena has much to be appreciative about. “I have learned how to read, write and do calculations, and now I even help my children with their studies,” she says. “My struggles are not yet over, but at least I feel more confident because I can live my life without being dependent on others for everything.”
Most of the qualified and available women teachers came from the upper castes and they were reluctant to even enter the Dalit and tribal colonies where the centres for the classes were being set up. Eventually the SSK team trained Dalit teachers for the job. Even those who had studied up to class V were taken on board.
After a basic test to evaluate their proficiency levels, the newly hired teachers were trained in adult education methods and teaching learning material (TLM) specially designed for the programme. Importantly, they were coached on the social and cultural sensitivities of engaging with Dalit and tribal women. “These aspects are non-negotiable,” adds Ms Dwivedi. “Teaching began when they were free of preordained ideas.”
The programme’s aim is to help the newly literate women examine their lives in the context of overbearing patriarchal norms and class and caste structures, and use education to effect social and economic changes. “We see education as an empowering process where rural women are able to question the everyday injustice and discrimination they face,” explains Ms Dwivedi.
The literacy centres are in spaces provided by individuals in their homes, by the village councils or even under a tree. The arrangements are simple: there’s a blackboard, TLM kits, mats for sitting and drinking water. Each centre trains women in batches of 20-25 in a basic level course lasting 18 months, after which they qualify for an advanced course that lasts a further 18 months. “Nearly 50% of them qualify for the advanced phase,” says Ms Dwivedi.
Classes are held daily and the women find time to attend between doing their daily chores. Attendance dips considerably during the harvest season, when the women must help out in the fields. The programme typically lasts 36 months (or even more) in each location, after which the centre is wound up.
Results are tracked through a monthly review and training session for teachers. Additionally, a five-day refresher course, conducted twice a year, takes stock of the programme’s progress and equips teachers with new skills, content and instruction techniques.
The literacy programme has delivered on its key objectives, enabling the women beneficiaries to put their newfound language and numeracy skills to good use, from opening a bank account to claiming benefits under government social welfare schemes. The teachers also take the women to various government institutions and banks to familiarise them with their workings.
Some of the women in Lalitpur who have completed the advanced course have even gone on to take up supervisory roles in projects implemented under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Nirantar has trained 50 such women as MNREGA ‘mates’ and 20 of them have found regular jobs in the scheme.
One big reason the programme has been effective is that it does not use traditional textbooks. Instead, it encourages the women to relate their learning to their lives. Accordingly, Nirantar has developed primers for both teachers and their students, keeping in mind their social context and environment. “They needn’t start from scratch; they just have to formalise their existing knowledge,” says Ms Dwivedi.
Every centre also has a small makeshift library with visually rich books that encourage the women to read. With their improved reading and writing skills, the women have gained confidence to express themselves through stories and other writings, which then become the reading material for new learners.
The literacy programme has spread beyond Lalitpur to Bahraich, where it began in late 2016 and has grown to 75 centres, and Pratapgarh, where 30 centres have come up since its inception there in 2018. Gram Vikas Sewa Sansthan, an Amethi-based NGO, is the implementing partner in Pratapgarh (with technical support from Nirantar). In Bahraich the programme is being directly managed by the Trusts.
The Trusts see the literacy initiative supporting other interventions where women play a central role, such as livelihood programmes involving self-help groups and projects in nutrition and children’s education. For instance, the literacy centres in Pratapgarh have become resource pools for employment in a local milk producer company created under Shwetdhara, a cattle-care programme that supports small and marginal farmers.
The core purpose of the programme, though, remains women literacy and what can be achieved through it. In Lalitpur, one of the programme’s beneficiaries is now the sarpanch (head) of her village while another has become a social activist. “Even daily wage labourers are no longer resigned to their fate; their understanding of the world has changed forever,” says Ms Dwivedi.
For the Tata Trusts, the immediate as well as the long-term counts. “We view this programme both in terms of its capacity to improve the agency of women and its instrumental value in promoting their participation in livelihood programmes, their capacity to engage with the schooling of their children, and take appropriate decisions on health, nutrition and the like,” says Ujjwal Banerjee, manager, education portfolio, the Tata Trusts.