Literacy - The Human Angle

Story from Thailand: The Queen of Folk Music



By Nikolay Ulanov

Five years ago a woman died and a country wept. Poumpoung Duangchanís untimely death at 31 shocked Thailand and millions of her fans.

As the news of her death spread, so did the brawls over what she left behind. Dirty linen was aired in public with such a vengeance that a leading Thai social commentator had to plead against further denigration of the "Queen of Folk Music". "Let her go in peace," urged Professor Khunying Jintana Yossunthorn, "Let our memory of her stay beautiful".

As time went by, various family members, husband, mother and father all sought to have direct control over her wealth, the extent of which remains unknown. Insiders estimate it to be hundreds of millions of baht.

Poumpoung died without ever learning her worth. When she passed away, there was barely enough cash to pay the medical bills. Resigned to her fate and accepting all the conditions others heaped upon her, she summed up her lot in a message recorded from her hospital bed. "I only worked and worked. When I was home, I cooked for my husband", signed Poumpoung. Her life on stage did not seem to eliminate the double responsibility most women face.

As her final days approached, the "Queen of Folk Music" realized she had no control over her own earnings which, in her words, "came by the sweat of hard work". Poumpoung broke her record on a Labour Day when she gave 13 performances in a row. "I donít have education. No money to hire a lawyer. I donít have evidence or papers about what I own. Itís all in my husbandís hand. Because I canít read".

Around the world, millions are suffering the same plight as Poumpoung but their stories are untold. Their underlying condition is the same - they are female, overworked, exploited and illiterate.

According to UNESCO, there are 418 million illiterate women in Asia and the Pacific today. Their number is steadily rising. If their lives are similar to that of Poumpoung, then their countries are letting the tremendous resources that women represent trickle away. This represents a huge amount in financial terms. Is not this enough to make us stop and think of ways to make the most of womenís potential?

Womenís work input and other contributions to the economic wealth of their countries have ceased to be a novelty. But the struggle goes on to enhance womenís capacity to be proud and contributing citizens.

It all has to start with work. Work is what brings about the recognition of oneís worth. And self-worth is something on which women can build a dignified life.

Currently, there are some 50 learning programmes and 29 booklets produced as part of UNESCOís effort of education for empowerment by representatives of its Member States.

Women everywhere work longer hours than men. The sad saying ĎA womanís work is never doneí captures accurately the pattern of work distribution between women and men. Many jobs assigned to women support the existence of families and communities and can fairly be considered part of the produce generated by villages, provinces and even countries. The examples below are taken from the Self-Reliant Women and Empowered Women series produced at various UNESCO workshops.

Take Nang Tongdee of Laos, for example; she labours for hours making trips to the stream to fetch water for her entire familyís use. No help from others. In South Asia, only women and girls carry water - a tedious and time consuming task.

Karma of Bhutan suffered serious back injuries after carrying manure for her family field for an entire season. Suman Pradhan of Bhutan says people believe that carrying manure brings men bad luck. So the job has been tacitly relegated to womenís duties.

In Phubjika village at the foot of the Himalayas, women secretly confess their work is so hard they do not like any of it. Nearly all of them wish they could be born a man in their next life - a highly unlikely event according to them. The Bhutanese believe a women has to be born nine times before she can be reincarnated in a manís body.

Xu Fanqing of a village near Lanzhou in the Kobi desert works in his bicycle repair shop. His wife, Yi Ling, does all the other jobs - getting up at four to make breakfast and get the children ready for school and then working in the field. This list of her tasks seems endless. Now, at forty-five, with her weather-beaten and wrinkled face, Yi Ling is often mistaken for her husbandís mother.

Every poor and illiterate women has her own story of being overworked, underpaid and unrecognized. Their problems are manifold and vary according to the unique conditions of their cultural setups. Educating these women means special care must be given to these specific needs. That is why UNESCOís learning programmes cover a wide range of womenís concerns.

In her programme, Marilyn Kajoi writes of Basanu of the Western Highland province of Papua New Guinea who adopted the idea of raising pigs for sale. Pigs are common and used to exchange for goods, including brides. But to raise them for sale added a new dimension to Basanuís work. She had to learn improved techniques of pig raising, how to keep simple accounts, to make plans and to spend her earnings wisely.

Eduardo E. de la Fuente wrote about Babo Pao, a Maguindanaon woman in Muslim Mindanao who was left with her children during her husbandís long absence. Faced with hungry children, Babo Pao turned her cooking skill, previously taken for granted, into money.

Although the programmes are essentially about work; they encompass other desirable outputs: better health, managerial and entrepreneurial skills, increased self-reliance, independence and self-respect.

The programmes are in English and are meant to be examples. What really matters is how this product, once translated and revised in the learnersí language or dialect, is going to influence the lives of women. We have to remember that they are already over burdened with lifeís many problems. One cannot keep them in the class room if they are not convinced that the knowledge is worth the bother.

The feeling of self-worth and empowerment are keys to success in reaching the millions of illiterates or semi-literates in the world. The challenge is enormous - to make their untold stories happier than the story of our dedicated, yet exploited and illiterate, "Queen of Folk Music".

By Nikolay Ulanov


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