Role of Adult Literacy in Accessing Citizenship as a Right

The role of literacy in the journey of a ‘citizen’ as simply someone born into the marked geography of the state, to becoming an active and participatory one is unarguably critical.

In a world where the written word is pivotal to its functioning, literacy is a starting step in gaining knowledge so as to participate meaningfully in governance systems, access entitlements, fracture discriminatory power structures as much as for entertainment or choosing careers.

In this sense, literacy and education are inalienable rights to fully engage with the plethora of spaces that the outside world consists of. Moreover, its articulation as a right remains deficient if it is age and gender specific. With this perspective towards the linkages of literacy and citizenship, Nirantar recently organised the National Thematic Consultation on Adult Literacy in the Contemporary context of Skill Building and Digitisation.

The mission of the consultation was to discuss with various stakeholders in the field the future of adult literacy given a context wherein the primary programme for addressing adult literacy, ‘Sakshar Bharat’ is approaching closure.

This is also a time where skilling, digitising and building livelihoods are being prioritised as routes to empowerment as almost substitutes to basic literacy.

While the thematic consultation included panels on understanding the convergences between literacy and skilling, livelihoods and digitisation, this piece seeks to, in particular, reflect on the discussions within the panel on adult literacy and citizenship.

The session on Citizenship began with panelists reflecting on their organisations’ adult literacy programmes and how these have contributed in strengthening the ability of women to participate more effectively in various aspects of public life. Panelists spoke about how during their experiences in the field, they have witnessed a development in women’s confidence, in their willingness to access banking institutions and SHG’s, take up employment as NREGA mates, write records of sales, purchases and transactions, read job cards and bank pass books and become increasingly self-reliant.

It was iterated that the written word acquires new meanings for women who are in leadership positions, in panchayats, running federations or are managing large livelihood initiatives.

While one aspect of the panel considered the aforementioned lived experiences of women, the other dealt with opening up certain questions with regards to the concept of citizenship itself. The panel brought forth the perspective that citizenship, while is crucially linked to public space participation is not limited to merely that. It was discussed that the spaces of the public and private, especially in women’s context, are equally significant while addressing the question of accessing citizenship rights. The chair of the session, Malini Ghose, asserted that,

Citizenship is not only linked to the ability to head to banks, access services etc.  but is also about power structures of gender within the home; and so the issue of the domestic within citizenship requires to be raised.

Alongside widening the scope of citizenship, the session also raised the issue of, to put it bluntly, ‘who is shaping the development agenda?’ Is it citizens who belong to marginalised communities that shape the agenda for themselves in terms of the rights and services they wish to exist for them? It was argued that the power to shape the agenda must lie with communities and education is an important tool towards this materialising this reality.

Working with non or semi-literate women makes one realise the truth in the statement above for it is often asked, rather innocently yet resolutely, “what can we do if even after having eyes, we are blind while seeing the world outside. Because we cannot read and write, we do not know which bus to get into to go to the next village, we cannot read information or newspapers and so much more”.

The written word is crucial to the way that knowledge systems have been structured in the world we live in, and as citizens, in order to shape agendas for the well-being of individuals by marginalised communities themselves, literacy, becomes a necessary pre-requisite in gaining power to influence public and private structures and systems. Additionally, it was discussed that this deserves to be highlighted and prioritised much more than it has been in the recent past, given that we are still at a stage in the development of the nation wherein the population comprises of 287 million adults who still cannot read and write.

Following this some important concerns that were flagged which included talks of a scanty education budget that signals the lack of state interest in the subject, and a call to funding agencies to start viewing, the linkages between citizenship and adult literacy with more gravity. Altogether, the session was extremely helpful in setting the tone for the consultation, for sharing with a larger audience the contributions that an adult literacy programme has made to the lives of women it has worked with and in opening up the concept of citizenship itself.


Note: If you are interested in knowing more about this session or other sessions at the National Thematic Consultation on Adult Literacy in the Contemporary context of Skill Building and Digitisation 2017, then you can email us at as we will soon be coming out with a recommendation document, which has emerged from discussions with various stakeholders, NGOs and individuals at this consultation.

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