in India -Targe ting Women in Tamil Nadu
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
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.
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
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
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".