Living Literacy

Illiteracy in India -Targe ting Women in Tamil Nadu

Pudukkottai district, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Population 1.32 million, the majority of them women. Most people here rely on the sun-parched land for sustenance -but barren soil and poor irrigation systems means crops are lean, locking families into an interminable cycle of poverty. Back in 1991, the literacy rate for Pudukkottai lay well below the national average, and women lagged far behind their men folk. A door-to-door survey conducted then revealed that of the 290,000 illiterate people aged between 9 and 45 years, more than 75 per cent were women. It was 1986, and 24-year-old Kannammal was working as an assistant at the Life Insurance Corporation. Through her membership of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum, she became involved in a scheme bringing street theatre, or kalajathas, to illiterate communities. Although the cultural programmes were a great success and inspiration to many, Kannammal felt they did not go far enough to address the problem of illiteracy.

By 1989, campaigns to eradicate adult illiteracy and promote basic education were already underway in the Ernakulam district of Kerala and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Kannammal and her colleagues mobilized public support for a similar project in Pudukkottai, and eventually secured government backing.

The proposal was accepted by the National Literacy Mission later that year, meaning work could begin in earnest. One of the first priorities was to recruit full-time volunteers for outreach work and devise ways to ensure maximum efficiency. It was proposed that in view of the priority target group -the women of Pudukkottai- it would be preferable to have female volunteers. The idea was met with derision by male officials, who scoffed that "if women are appointed they will only visit one village a day, so things won't move fast enough."

Kannammal and her colleagues suggested that the women could perhaps be taught to ride bicycles. As well as learning to read and write, both the volunteers and their pupils would master the art of two-wheel travel. As a gentle introduction to the idea and to help women overcome their apprehension, a number of motivating cycle songs were sung in the rural communities. One of them went like this: "Learn to ride the cycle sister, set in motion the wheel of life, sister. Earlier the husband would ride with the wife sitting behind. This is now an old story, now you ride and let the husband sit behind. Start a new story." Within one year, 6,000 women had learned to ride a bike.

Today, this healthy, environmentally-friendly mode of transport is a common sight in rural Pudukkottai. Women use their bikes to fetch water, go to work in the fields and to help others in emergency situations.

Although Kannammal was busy with her own four-year-old son, she had no doubts about committing to the project and took a period of leave from her office job. The literacy campaign in Pudukkottai was officially launched in October 1991, and continued until June 1992. Drawing on past experiences, the organizers knew that success would depend on local community involvement on a grand scale. The driving force behind the initiative was the Pudukkottai District Literacy Society, an organization bringing together government officials, non-governmental organizations and members of the public. A total of 30,000 volunteers were trained as tutors. Their brief was to consciously broaden the scope of tuition, to look beyond basic literacy skills and include training in a range of empowering, confidence-building skills. The classes, held out in the open on village streets until 11 p.m. in some cases, were attended by some 240,000 people. By August 1992, the state governor of Tamil Nadu declared Pudukkottai district totally literate.

But it wasn't all plain sailing. The village of Mukanampatti posed volunteers with a particularly sensitive problem. The area has a majority Muslim population, and women were refusing to come out of their houses in the evenings to attend literacy classes. Many husbands were working away from home in the Gulf, but the women were not able to read their letters. Kannammal accompanied the local co-ordinator to a meeting with Muslim leaders, an encounter that called on all their powers of tact and diplomacy. Surely it would be beneficial for Muslim women to be able to read the Koran? Their efforts paid off, and soon all the women were coming to the classes, and bringing their children.

As for Kannammal, she suffered her own highs and lows. It was hard for her being without her son. Whenever she felt demotivated, she looked to fellow volunteers for inspiration. "Shashi Kumar lives in the village of Vavaneri," she says. "He came from a very poor family, but he was a dedicated worker. He ran a class for 10 women in the evenings, and taught them cycling at weekends. He was a real tonic for me."

As well as the literacy campaign, Kannammal was also involved in a parallel workers' movement, known as the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA). The scheme aimed to free women from the shackles of hard labour by awarding a contract directly to a group of 20 quarry workers.

By cutting out the middle man, in this case the contractor, the project gave women greater influence over their pay and conditions. After a series of protest rallies and appeals, the Government was persuaded to give long-term backing to the scheme.

It was 8 September 1996, and Kannammal attended a book launch to mark International Literacy Day. Titled Literacy and Empowerment, the book related the story of the Pudukkottai campaign. Up to this point, Kannammal had been silently working behind the scenes, perhaps not fully aware of the difference she and her colleagues had been making. In the presence of government ministers, television crews and other VIPs, Kannammal was asked to say a few words about her own personal experience. "All eyes turned towards me," she recalls. "I was so scared, memories of visiting each village on hot days and cold nights rushed through my mind. How could I say it all in a minute?" But Kannammal overcame her fear, and her speech was greeted with a standing ovation. "There were tears of joy in my eyes," she says.

The 1991-92 literacy campaign changed Kannammal's life, and that of thousands of other women. "I was living in a small world which consisted of my family, my children and my office," she says. "The campaign took me out of that world, and gave me the chance to expand my sphere of activity. Before 1991, I knew nobody. Today I have many friends, not only here in India but all over the world. Now I have the confidence to achieve anything." These days, Kannammal is State Co-ordinator of Samam -an education campaign promoting equality for women.

Later analysis of the impact of this campaign showed that basic education gave women confidence, independence, higher incomes and a clear improvement in lifestyle. It also led to a significant reduction in cases of domestic violence. Thanks to Kannammal and her fellow volunteers, the women of Pudukkottai have truly been able to "start a new story".