Karachi, WFS) - Lal Khatoon was very excited the night she learned to write her name for the first time in her native language, Sindhi. She ran back home after attending her night school, woke up her husband and proudly showed him her class work. Although Khatoon's husband didn't respond enthusiastically and just went back to sleep, she wasn't disappointed by his attitude. "He gave me permission to visit the night school, provided I finished my chores," she recalled.
Khatoon lives in village Muha Chora, one of the 738 villages in Sindh province's Sanghar district. Sindh has the lowest female literacy rate in Pakistan - only 17.5 per cent.
Khatoon has become part of an ambitious literacy plan - supported by NGOs - that aims to achieve 50 per cent improvement in its adult literacy levels by 2015, especially for women. Pakistan, along with 183 other countries, is a signatory to the Dakar Framework for Action - Education For All - and to the eight Millenium Development Goals, one of which is to achieve universal primary education. Pakistan has 50 million illiterate adults (out of a population of 145 million), and 30 million illiterate adults are women. Khatoon knows what changes literacy can bring about in women's lives. Since she joined school, she has started thinking more about sanitation and hygiene. "I now want a toilet in our house. I always thought it was important, but now that we discuss issues like hygiene and health, it is paramount."
Sanhul, Khatoon's teacher, had to quit studies after Class 12 as there was no separate college for women in her village, which is located some 250 km from Pakistan's southern port city, Karachi. But Sanhul decided that she would share her knowledge with other women in the village. In February 2004, she started a school in a room in her home. The school had a blackboard and some charpoys (beds made of rope) instead of chairs for students to sit on. Sanhul was supported by the Sindh Agricultural and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organization (SAFWCO) and the Catholic Relief Service (both NGOs). SAFWCO was established in 1986 by a small group of social activists to encourage the empowerment of rural communities. Sanhul's one-room school became part of the eight-month adult literacy programme, launched by the two NGOs, to provide women with an opportunity to read, write and learn basic mathematics. Sanhul's one-room school concept has now been replicated in 20 villages, reaching out to 350 women. 53 per cent of the students are married; 6 per cent are widows while 41 per cent are single women. By 2005, the literacy programme will reach another 30-40 villages.
"Initially, men were resistant; but when they came to know that the schools are only teaching the basics, they felt it may help women run their homes better," explains Suresh Kumar, Manager, Education Development Programme at SAFWCO.
Ayesha Solangi, from Muha Chora village, is thrilled with her progress: "I sign my name on official documents, though people still insist I use a thumb impression. Why should I, when I can write? Literacy has given me a new confidence that I lacked earlier."
"There is hope for our district, now that women can access basic literacy.
They will now ensure their children, specially their daughters, get educated," says Seema Arain, Supervisor, Education Department, Government of Sindh. All teachers at the literacy centres have to be women. Some are Class 8 graduates while others have a bachelor's degree. The centres have flexible timings and classes are scheduled according to the convenience of women. Several women come to the centre with their children.
For Nasira, eight months pregnant, whose husband is with the armed forces, "waiting has become a lot easier" now that they write letters to each other. Bibi Taj, another student, loves to read the newspaper and her favourite topics are politics and local administration. The schools offer hope to girls like Rozina, 16, a school dropout. "I felt I was too old to go back to regular school. So I came here." Her mother says, "Since she's started going to this school, she's less sullen." However, she adds ruefully, that Rozina has "picked up new things" - "She tells us how to keep our home tidy, to cover all food items and use boiled water."
In Fazal Talhani village in the same district, Hanifan Munawwar teaches a group of women in the afternoon. In the morning, she teaches in a government-run school. She feels teaching young girls is much easier than teaching women as the former absorb lessons quickly. "The older ones are always complaining about the homework and want to go slow."
Bhagan Dhani Parto, a school dropout who is also Munawwar's younger sister, decided to attend this school after her friend Sibiani claimed it had helped her keep accounts.
The classes have come as a blessing for those working in the cotton fields. "Earlier, we didn't know how much cotton we'd picked. Now we write down the amount that the zamindar (landlord) weighs. There is less bickering and we get the wages due to us. We can now protect ourselves from being exploited by the literate."
Bashiran Begum, who is one of the senior-most in her class, says she can now add and subtract. This helps in her work. This year (2004) the cotton-picking women in Sindh province managed to get better wages after negotiating the terms and conditions with their landlords. For these women, this is a victory their one-room school brought them.
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