Gyasi got married when she was 13 years old and could hardly read and write despite going to school for 3-4 years. In 2003 when Nirantar, SSK organized a 10 days camp she joined to strengthen her frail literacy skills. The idea of being able to read and write was so exciting that after first camp Gyasi attended four more camps. With her strengthened literacy skills she began teaching at one of the literacy centres where she also built a perspective on gender and women’s empowerment. Her family objected to her teaching in a Dalit village. They even called for a Panchayat meeting to discourage her from it but she stood her ground and continued to work and learn. She feels that she is not alone anymore and has found true companionship through her work.
Gyasi’s story is one of many such stories where women have broken traditional and discriminatory norms and have fought for their right to empowering education. The present education systems, including formal and non- formal institutions, do not give importance to women’s literacy and the current efforts to improve girls’ education need innovation and strengthening.
When we talk about adult women’s literacy the current interventions lack linkages with their lived realities. Sakshar Bharat is currently the government’s only programme that aims to provide literacy skills to rural adults through 300 hours of training followed by a certification exam. The emphasis is on just functional literacy and certification. Nirantar, in the twenty years of its work on education, has been able to see the linkages of education and literacy with improvement in health conditions, greater participation in governance forums, enhanced access to entitlements and increased awareness and information. Several women who have participated in the literacy interventions have been able to access their entitlements under MGNREGA, effectively monitor the implementation of the Public Distribution System and Mid Day Meal scheme for the rural poor. As first-generation learners, many of them have ensured the enrolment of their children, including daughters, into the school system.
The school system however is not geared to address issues of marginalization and inequity for these first generation learners whether in classroom transactions or in school curricula or in the perceptions of teachers. Though involvement of the community is highlighted in RTE; in reality, the role and engagement of parents especially from dalit and tribal communities is minimal, often tokenistic. Due to lack of good quality learning inputs the government system is seen by the community as a mere provision of facilities and entitlements. There is also an acceptance in the community that good quality education is available only outside the government school system.
The need, therefore, is to center the concerns and claims of rights and entitlements of marginalized communities through provisions of enabling and empowering learning opportunities for adults and children from a perspective of gender and equity. Such processes will be made possible only if those who are working with marginalized communities have access to opportunities to build their perspectives and abilities to facilitate transformatory learning and education. Nirantar seeks to address these gaps by adopting a holistic vision of education and through designing concrete strategies for implementation with local NGOs. Within the broader paradigm it is important to integrate a feminist vision that seeks to create opportunities for girls and women to recognize and demand their right and become empowered in the process of getting educated.
Gyasi took tough, brave decisions to live a life of dignity which began when she wanted to learn and not just ‘attend school’. This process wasn’t easy but she drew strength from a program that integrated elements of an empowering education, right to demand accountability, focus on the rights of women to be educated irrespective of their age or socio-economic status etc. The way forward would be to introduce these elements in all government and non-government educational initiatives and scale them in a way so that they reach to those marginalized the most on the basis of gender, caste, class and religion.