Literacy - The Human Angle

Story from Pakistan: Literacy frees


Yasmeen’s family, from the Balochi tribe of Pakistan, were frantic. Their boy had eloped into the desert with a girl from the Pashto tribe. The girl’s family were more than furious. The affair escalated into an intertribal crime. A week later, when the police found and separated the couple, the girl had to stay in custody while the boy went home.

Indignant Pashtos threatened to kill the youngsters unless given fair compensation. Arbitrators heard the demand for two lakh rupees and two girls to clear the disgrace. Yasmeen’s father wept, a humiliating sight for a man in this macho culture. Impatient Pashtos then kidnapped the girls themselves from the boy’s tribe.

Under the pressure of both Pashtos and Balochis, Yasmeen’s father capitulated. In a province where only two women in a hundred are literate, Yasmeen seemed the prime choice to settle the dispute. With a well-paying job and a Master’s Degree, she would make a good bride, particularly for the bus driver who was set for the wedding rites.

When asked what she felt about her father’s act and the possible mismatch for a husband, Yasmeen shuddered. "I would die," she said, "he is illiterate". Yasmeen’s father was also devastated. Still tearful, he offered Nasreen, Yasmeen’s fourteen-year old sister - a ninth-grade pupil. The girl cried for days. Her father’s heart softened and he offered ten lakh rupees and no girl.

No sooner was the offer made than the Pashtos arrived in a show of force. The final compromise was to marry Nasreen off at a later date. The mission accomplished, the men sat to feast while sobbing women and the child were left to their own devices.

This episode is only one of the survival stories of educated women in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan, the poor and the privileged alike. Take the case of Sabida.

When she joined the Punjab Social Services Board, Sabida looked the picture of despair: dark circles under her eyes, drooping lips, and dressed in deep mourning. As a carefree schoolgirl, she was engaged to Ahmed, her cousin. Theirs looked like a normal arranged affair with one exception. Ahmed had been diagnosed as suffering from a deadly blood disease and destined to die young.

A lavish wedding did take place, however, at the insistence of Sabida’s grandmother in order to keep the lineage pure and the wealth within the family.

The blow came in Geneva when Ahmed died suddenly. Sabida returned to her family in Lahore to live in seclusion, devoted to the memory of Ahmed. Again, Sabida’s grandmother, and also her uncle, insisted she remarry, this time to Ahmed’s brother, another case of the same disease.

This time, Sabida’s father refused and promised to let her do as she wished. But doing as you wish requires enormous will in a this traditional set-up. It was not until she met Shaheen Atiq-ur-Rehman, a social worker and herself a member of the ruling class, that Sabida discovered her ability to resist.

In their joint education project for girls in Tehsil Hafisilabad, Sabida and Shaheen made 26,000 women literate over a period of 18 months - a track record. But in a country where only 35 per cent of the people are literate, their achievements seem insignificant.

"Life is good", says Sabida, now. "I’m satisfied". Time and time again her grandmother suggests a union between Sabida and her brother-in-law. "I would not be surprised if in a year or so he will marry another girl," Sabida mentions casually, "They just want me back in the house".

Still suffering from migraines brought about by the conflict, Sabida, with the help of Shaheen, has learned to cope. The two women consider themselves lucky. Millions of women suffer in silence. Some go mad. Others turn to the streets.

Pakistan ranks lowest among the nine countries, which have the largest illiterate population. According to the report at the World Summit on Education for All (New Delhi) its primary schooling coverage rate is close to the bottom rung among the 87 developing countries.

Authorities seem optimistic. The 1992 National Education Policy set an extremely ambitious goal of providing primary education to all children by the year 2002. From the current 35%, literacy rate should shoot up to 75%, through functional literacy programmes for adults. Special programmes for women and urban and rural poor are expected to make these people productive citizens.

Many fear the goal might prove over-ambitious. According to officials in Non-formal education, the goal is realistic if only the focus is put on rural women. The programme works with women so the limited resources could as well be provided to village schools. Claims that women are indifferent or afraid to come out and learn are overturned by recent polls of literacy beginners even in areas where women are in purdah. Their seclusion is weakening. "Women come out in droves", says Ms Atiq-ur- Rahman now Director of the Bunyad Literacy Project.

Her polls add to the optimistic forecast made by Qurut-al-Ain, Consultant to the Society for Community Support for Primary Education in Balochistan. She and her team, among them Yasmeen of our first story, toured Balochistan to identify villages willing to support a female primary education class. All but one village agreed with great enthusiasm. Within six months or so 160 non-formal primary activities were set up.

Relevance is the key. While Balochistan is using the textbook, which is uniform for all the countries, Ms Atiq-ur-Rahman favours a new approach. "We’ve learned that basics come first. Whatever we’re offering must be immediately relevant to the learner. If girls spend days keeping goats, we’d rather give them texts on everything related to goats". And this ranges from fodder to goat disease to marketing the product. Ms Atiq-ur-Rahman designed her own "curricular unit" during a three-week training session at UNESCO’s Regional Workshop in Thailand. Aptly called "Goats - Cash Key to Choice", the unit, now published in Urdu, has been tried out in the Hafisilabad project.

Life does change, even in a very traditional country. As women timidly welcome literacy, the need to produce learning materials has grown. It has been five years since the Yasmeen fiasco. Today in UNICEF and UNESCO workshops young women and men from Pakistan are working together - a social anomaly for this country. With fifty curricular units to their credit, the team seems to have gained the momentum to launch a bigger project in non-formal primary education.

Their units look like a patchwork encyclopedia - The Confident Woman, Fodder Growing, Chicken Disease, Dairy Farming, Personal Hygiene, Who Am I, Loans and Saving, Women and Law and Community Development. It remains to be seen whether the ideas of the cycle work. It certainly is trial and error. Whatever the outcome, women like Yasmeen and Sabida find the education they offer more meaningful than the cruel alternatives of tribal discrimination against women in the name of tradition.


By Namtip Aksornkool and Nikolay Ulanov


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