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‘Now the blackboard is looking at me!’

Mothers’ Union members and workers worldwide know that a lack of literacy skills is one of the main problems facing women and girls, especially in rural areas 

2005 Available in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Literacy – Footsteps 62

Practical articles on how to support child and adult literacy

by Barbara Lawes.

Mothers’ Union members and workers worldwide know that a lack of literacy skills is one of the main problems facing women and girls, especially in rural areas. Without literacy skills, women find it much harder to improve conditions in their homes, families and communities and to participate fully in community affairs and administration. Literacy is key to accessing the few local initiatives and opportunities available. Literacy enables women’s voices and concerns to be heard by decision-makers locally, nationally and internationally.

In response to this the Mothers’ Union researched, developed and implemented the Mothers’ Union Literacy and Development Programme (MULDP). The programme had to be affordable, sustainable and appropriate for adult learners. It needed to make use of local skills and knowledge, and be usable with any language. Above all, it had to tackle the inequalities in society, which so often keep women powerless, voiceless and unseen in their families and communities.

The Mothers’ Union is a Christian organisation working in 76 countries around the world through an extensive network of volunteers and paid staff, and which follows the Anglican church structure from province to grassroots church communities. This gives Mothers’ Union an almost unique contact with families and communities in the poorest places, where adult literacy levels are likely to be lowest.

Forming literacy circles

Adult literacy programmes have a high failure rate. Our extensive research showed this is partly due to unsustainable learning methods, lack of funding and lack of continuity on the part of the local facilitators. We have tried to avoid these problems where possible. Burundi, Malawi and Sudan have some of the lowest adult literacy rates in Sub Saharan Africa. Since they are also countries where the Mothers’ Union is strong, we began work there. A pilot programme was developed with the help of LABE, Uganda (see page 5) and we began work in eight dioceses. After careful explanations about how the programme would work, each diocese appointed two literacy trainers. These 16 women were trained in Uganda by LABE and Mothers’ Union and returned to their countries to begin the three-year pilot programme.

Communities that agreed to participate had to form a local steering committee and find a suitable local person to be trained as the facilitator. The facilitator should be able to read and write in the local language and be acceptable to the local learners.

Once 12 communities had been selected, the facilitators were brought together for a week and trained in group formation, Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) techniques and how to introduce literacy using these techniques. As soon as they returned to their communities, enrolment began and the literacy circle began its work. The trainers visited the facilitators and their literacy circles every two weeks until they were well established and the circle was really going well.

The programme involves sharing the knowledge and wisdom of participants on various topics through discussion. Key words to learn are taken from this discussion. In many ways the discussion is as important as learning literacy skills.

Making things work

A number of problems were found:

  • People who had participated in previous literacy programmes that had failed were reluctant to join as they did not want to risk further disappointment.
  • Some learners dropped out because the Participatory Learning and Action approach did not fit their expectations of ‘proper schooling’. When they realised that people were becoming literate they tried to rejoin, but had to wait until a new circle formed.
  • Many parents wanted their children to be enrolled, as they wanted to give them the opportunity to learn.
  • Each circle is limited to no more than 30 learners, but sometimes many more people wanted to enrol.
  • When literacy circles are formed in clusters of three or four (as requested), visiting and support is much easier. However, this had not always happened.

All of these challenges were met either by the trainers or during visits by Mothers’ Union staff.

Once the circles were functioning well, the trainers continued to visit occasionally but moved their main focus to new communities. Now there is a regular pattern where the trainers train 12 facilitators twice a year. All facilitators come together for a few days each year to enable them to share experiences and receive further training.

Spreading the word

The trainers are full time Mothers’ Union staff employed by their dioceses with support from the Mothers’ Union. The facilitators receive small financial incentives, respect and some assistance from their communities. They also know they are providing a very valuable service for their friends and neighbours.

It takes between 160 and 200 hours in a literacy circle for a learner to become functionally literate and numerate. There are many factors which affect this. Some displaced people with few outside opportunities learn fast, as they cannot go to cultivate gardens or do any other activity. Communities which traditionally move a long distance to cultivate may have a gap of three or four months when there are no meetings. They need extra time to remember what they have learned previously.

Once people are literate and numerate they quickly move into community action and income-generating activities. The amount of such activity has amazed us. Post-literacy circles have also proved important. These provide people with a chance to use their new skills for reading, letter writing, community notice boards, helping in clinics and further study.

In June 2003 a final evaluation took place and the programme was expanded into a further five dioceses. There are now 26 trained trainers and 600 facilitators, with more in training. Facilitators can come from any faith or none. There are 15,000 learners in active circles with many more in post-literacy activities. At present this programme is only used in Burundi, Malawi and Sudan but requests are coming from many parts of the world. We are keen to help but funds are proving difficult to find. This is an effective and sustainable programme that changes lives for the better. It costs just £20 to enable one person to read, write and count. There cannot be many better bargains than that!

In addition to the advantages literacy and numeracy bring to the community, the participatory methods are leading to improved communication within families and between neighbours. Health issues are tackled at community level and income-generating schemes begun, usually without the need for outside funding. Civil society is strengthened and able to take advantage of any possible opportunities.

Barbara Lawes is the World Wide Projects Officer at the Mothers’ Union, Mary Sumner House, 24 Tufton Street, London, SW1P 3RB, UK.
[email protected]

Learners’ comments

‘All my life I just saw the blackboard through the window. But now I am seeing it and it is looking at me.’ Eva Wajo

‘I work as a cleaner. On payday I would just take my pay without being able to check if it was correct or not, using my thumbprint to sign for it. Now I cannot be deceived any more. I am happy.’ Margaret Keji 

‘I joined as a learner and was shy and had no confidence. I learnt to read and write very fast, and now I’m a facilitator. I am full of pride because I am now helping others to read and write too.’ Donatile, Malawi

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