“One roti (circular bread) on top of another roti makes an 8” says Durga, CORD’s Literacy program teacher. The methods used to teach rural women how to read and write are very simple. With the shape of a roti and a stick, Durga is able to teach women numbers, letters, words, and how to sign their names. Most of the women who attend literacy classes are over the age of 40; these women grew up during a time when education was not emphasized for females. Although their family members tell them they are too old to learn how to read and write, they pay no attention and continue to come to CORD each week for class. Like the women, Durga has received very little education and has only completed the fifth standard. However, she still strongly believes that women can learn at any age even with little or no formal schooling. Each woman who attends the class has a different reason for becoming literate.
Savitri Devi started coming to CORD after an embarrassing episode with a shopkeeper. As she was running her daily errands she stepped into her local general store to buy incense. The shopkeeper asked her for one rupee and 50 paise for her purchase. Savitri Devi gave the shopkeeper a five rupee bill and started to figure out in her head how much money she should get back. Despite the fact that she was illiterate she was confident in her counting skills. So when the shopkeeper gave her back three rupees and 50 paise, Savitri Devi politely told him that he had made a mistake. The confused shopkeeper counted the money again and told her he had given her the right amount. Now she counted the money again, and this time yelled at him for trying to cheat her. He was shocked by her behavior and said that she was the one who had made the mistake. After some arguing, the shopkeeper gave Savitri Devi five rupees in coins and made her pay again. When Savitri Devi went to give him the proper amount she realized her mistake. She was embarrassed by the situation and apologized to the shopkeeper for accusing him of cheating her. When she went home and told the story to her kids, they scolded her for not knowing how to count or read properly. Savitri realized the importance of being literate and started attending CORD’s literacy classes.
As she started taking classes, she wanted to excel in her studies. After weekly meetings, she realized that she needed more practice. However, there was no one in her home that could help her. Savitri Devi then had the brilliant idea of getting the help of small children who were learning some of the same material as she was. One day, she decided to approach a small group of children who were playing. She cleverly brought along some sweets and offered them to the children. In return, she asked for their help. The children were very eager to help someone older than them and willingly went to Savitri Devi’s house to help her read and write. This method worked like magic and soon Savitri was able to progress quickly in her studies.
Like Savitri Devi, Janki Devi had her own reasons for wanting to become literate. Janki Devi’s eyes overflowed with tears when her son went off to the army. She reminisced about all the years they had together and was worried about his safety. Janki Devi waited for her son’s call but often he was in a region too remote to be able to call her. He wrote to this mother weekly but Janki Devi could never read her son’s letters because she was illiterate. She would often take the letters to her neighbor so he could read them to her. Janki Devi wanted to write to her son but she was limited by her illiteracy. One day, she decided it was time for her to learn how to read and write so she came to CORD. Despite the fact she was 78 years old, Janki Devi never felt she was too old to learn. Janki Devi comes to CORD regularly and, with the help of Durga, is now able to read her son’s letters and respond to them.
CORD’s Literacy program has enabled numerous women like Savitri and Janki Devi to become literate. It has taken a functional approach so that the women learn to incorporate their literacy skills in their everyday lives such as reading bus signs, dialing telephone numbers, keeping basic accounts and records of their livelihood, and learning how to sign their name. It has also allowed young women in remote, inaccessible villages to learn how to read and write. Becoming literate is important because it heightens social awareness, enhances confidence, and increases the likelihood of children becoming educated. As of the last census, 46% of India’s women are illiterate making them dependent on others and a part of a marginalized group. However, becoming literate has enabled women to empower themselves and be writers of their own fate.