Literacy – a building block for real change in rural areas

By Maria Hartl, Senior Technical Specialist – Gender and Social Equity
On 8 September, we celebrate International Literacy Day. But is there reason to celebrate when the number of illiterate people – the majority of whom are women – is not declining, and we are witnessing a donor fatigue in supporting literacy classes? 
Literacy is one of the benchmarks of the Education for All (EFA) Framework and is included in the 2030 Agenda (SDG 4.6). For more than 60 years, UNESCO has been leading global literacy efforts advancing the vision of a literate world for all. Yet in 2017, we are still far from achieving this goal. According to the UNESCO 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, some 758 million adults worldwide, 63% of them women, have not attained even minimal literacy skills.  They live in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and in South and West Asia.
Illiteracy is a marker of deprivation. In some countries, including Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Nigeria, less than 10% of poor rural women can read; in Niger, the rate is only 2%. Large gaps in literacy rates between women and men also exist in Cameroon, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Togo. In Latin America, illiteracy rates among indigenous women are often more than double those of non-indigenous women.  
Burundi: a literacy class for adults
Many illiterate people, especially among the older generations, have never been to school.  Others completed some years of primary schooling, but dropped out and are not using any literacy skills that they do have because they live in a non-literate environment. 

The persistence of such high numbers of people who cannot read and write, compounded by high levels of poverty, demographic pressure, and lack of schools and teachers , raise questions whether even with strong political will and injection of resources, the literacy goals will be achieved as envisaged. Children may be enrolled, but leave school with minimal levels of literacy – because they do not attend, or the teacher does not show up, or there are emergencies that result in the closure of classes or schools. Malnutrition also makes it more difficult for children to regularly attend school and to learn while they are there. Special efforts are required to meet the needs of drop-outs from formal schooling.

Many of those who are unable to read and write are rural poor people, the targeted participants of IFAD-supported projects. If literacy is a driver for sustainable development and greater participation in the labour market, if it improves child and family health and nutrition, reduces poverty and expands life opportunities, what can be can be done to reduce illiteracy? The challenge seems gigantic.

Capacity-building and training are major investment activities in most IFAD-supported projects, and adult literacy training is also undertaken in some cases as part of overall community development. When rural poor people are consulted in participatory community development efforts, the request for literacy training is very often among their top priorities. 

Over the last years, I have seen some projects where literacy is very much on the agenda. There I have met mostly women who were highly motivated, proud of attending and forever grateful to the project for teaching them how to read and write and bringing them to the same level as their children who attend school.

Literacy classes can be a stepping stone

Functional literacy programmes bring best results when they are linked to other project activities   and work as a stepping stone for further interventions.

In Burundi, the Value Chain Development Programme – Phase II makes it a precondition that participants attend literacy classes before joining local solidarity groups and cooperatives. The project uses the REFLECT methodology, an innovative approach to adult learning and social change developed by Action Aid in the 1990s. Over 500 organizations in 70 countries worldwide who use REFLECT as an approach to literacy and a people-centred development and advocacy method. 

When we visited a literacy class last year in Burundi, the topic was hygiene and nutrition. The teacher introduced words related to health and food, and then the class was built around these words.  This approach also prepares the participants for later activities in the project such as nutrition training for young mothers. The literacy classes enabled participants to acquire not only numeracy skills, but also basic knowledge about the functioning of savings and credit groups, which they subsequently joined. Using mobile phones, doing calculations and other practical operations such as storing phone numbers, are also practical skills taught in the literacy class. 

Madagascar: out-of-school-youth meeting after course
In Madagascar, the  Vocational Training and Agricultural Productivity Improvement Programme (FORMAPROD) targets and provides training – including functional literacy training – to young farmers, agricultural technicians and extension agents, and supports continuous vocational training in all 13 regions of the country. The project specifically focuses on uneducated youth and young women (18-25 years) who are heads of household. Special activities are provided for young people aged 14 – 18 years with little or no formal education to give them a second chance. UNESCO is a partner for the training of out-of-school-youth. The 1535 rural youth (including 453 young women) accomplished a 3-month residential course followed by artisan training and development of business plans. In the next step, the project is supported their professional start-up projects.

In Morocco, the Agricultural Value Chain Development Programme in the Mountain Zones of Taza Province enabled 1440 participants including 960 women to participate in functional literacy training in 2016. Once they have completed their literacy training, trainees will start income-generating activities.

Recently I received a beautiful letter from a group of women in Taza, whom I had met on a previous field visit.  They wrote:  "we were not able to attend school before, but thanks to the project we could realize our dreams and carry the torch of knowledge and learning into our daily family live and professional activities. The classes enabled us to participate in our personal and local development initiatives. Thank you!"

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For more information in English and French about PRODEFI, see also the IFAD website: Madagascar - Burundi