March 2016

Lifting women from the dark abyss of illiteracy

There is a direct link between the literacy of women and the health and well-being of their families and communities, says Nayantara Sabavala, Associate Director at Tata Trusts

The darkness and helplessness that illiteracy casts on a large segment of the population is something we rarely think about. Are you worried about the kind of exploitation that is linked to the fact that some of us cannot read letters or numericals — in measurement of work hours under the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), the counting of bricks at a brick kiln for piece-rate payment or the computation of interest and settlement of a loan from the local money lender? Have you ever reflected on the fact that illiterate people cannot read doctors prescriptions, or labels on medication, and have to put a thumb mark of assent on medical procedures and accompanying risks, without having understood them? Have you ever imagined a situation in which you had to depend on external help to decipher the destination at a bus or train station every time you left home, to read the figure on your pay slip or check the accuracy of the details on your aadhar or voter's card which could impact your eligibility to basic services like the PDS or as a citizen to vote? Can you imagine having to get news from what people choose to share? Have you ever thought of the fact that illiteracy places so many people in just this kind of dark abyss — 775 million or 17% of the world's adult population globally of which two thirds are women?

India has 287 million illiterate adults, the largest population globally and 37% of the world's total. And yet the surprising silence around this issue and the lack of interest in addressing it. In a situation where we are proudly announcing our status as one of the world's fastest growing economies, what is our strategy to pull this large section, of which a significant number are women, out of darkness and dependency? Today, the female literacy levels in India, according to the 2011 census are 65.46% where the male literacy rate is over 80%. Gaps in literacy levels are the simplest indicator of gender inequalities that prevent individuals as well as communities of women from participating in the development process. Although significant gains have been made, much is still to be done. 

The one sliver of light has been the Tata Trusts engagement with Nirantar's literacy programme which started in 2010, at a time when the entire attention of government as well as philanthropic organisations was centered on elementary education. Research has proven that there is a direct link between literacy of women and the health and well-being of their families and communities, and that there will be no Beti Padhao in the absence of a Ma Padho. Nirantar recognised this early on and began a programme of functional literacy which links literacy with the challenges that women face and connects it to their daily life needs, while providing opportunities for sustaining literacy skills on a regular basis. What began as a small intervention with 300 women in 25 villages in Lalitpur has now spread across 4 states through 16 partners, impacting the lives of over 50,000 women. The literacy camps that Nirantar conducts go beyond teaching women how to read and write. They teach women how to negotiate with their environment, how to compute their earnings and deal with banks. Women learn how to demand their right to work and can keep track of the hours and consequent payment. They are empowered to make decisions that impact their own lives and the lives of their children. They have gained, through literacy, a confidence that enables them to talk to pradhans and politicians and negotiate their dues. Two impact evaluations later and ten years down the line the Nirantar-Tata Trust collaborative effort has proven that this model works.

An offshoot of Nirantar's work in the literacy arena is Khabar Lahariya (KL). Khabar Lahariya, ('News Waves')[2] is an eight-page weekly local language newspaper brought out by a collective of rural women journalists. It is the only local language newspaper available to readers in the three districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where it is published. The distinctive voice and popularity of Khabar Lahariya comes from the fact that it reports on local issues with a perspective sensitive to structures of power — whether gender, class, caste or religion — and has become a powerful watchdog, an instrument of enforcing grassroots accountability. Aimed at exposing the acts of omission and commission by the local bureaucracy/political class, the newspaper today brings to light the growing distance between the promises made by the government in terms of rural development and empowerment, and the actual delivery on the ground. As the only newspaper produced by women in districts where gender-development indices are amongst the poorest in the country, KL reports on issues of violence against women with an astute understanding of gender and caste structures within which this violence is situated

This merely demonstrates in a small way what can be done .This is also a call for action — for more partners and more philanthropic organisations to start reflecting on the need to pull our fellow women out of the darkness of illiteracy and into the light.


[1] UNESCO Institute of Statistics

[2] Nirantar

Nayantara Sabavala is an Associate Director at Tata Trusts and looks after the Education, Urban Poverty and Livelihoods portfolios

This article first appeared in