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S.M. Anwar Hossain
pioneering style of literacy learning being promoted across Bangladesh
is enabling women to transform their lives and those of their families.
Akhtar, 30, has invited me into her new house to see how her life has
changed. She lives in one of hundreds of homesteads scattered amid clumps
of coconut and date trees in Baniyar Kandar, a village surrounded by
a watery patchwork of paddy fields in Jheneidah region, western Bangladesh.
Ten years ago, Hira explained, she and her husband, lived in a simple
thatched hut, choked on the smoke from cooking on an open fire, and
often lay awake with the aches and pains that come from sleeping on
a thin mat on a hard dusty mud floor.
It was all they could afford on the 1,000 taka a month her husband Moslem
Uddin made as a share-cropper working in rented fields.
Today Moslem still earns the same amount working on the land, every
inch of which is cultivated in this densely populated area.
Hira on the other hand, now earns 4,000 taka a month by using skills
she picked up in a new style of literacy programme that is making inroads
where traditional adult learning programs have failed.
Six years ago a non-governmental organisation called Dhaka Ahsania Mission
started classes in her village. They allotted a room in the house next
door to Hira's for people to meet and called it Ganokendra (The people's
centre). Soon her women friends were asking her to come along.
It was a big step to take. The women in her village were not allowed
out, they could not meet strangers even if they visited their homes
and most had never been to school.
“By tradition we could not even pronounce our husband's name,” said
of Maheshpur engaged in a conversation with the Ganokendra supervisor.
she asked permission from her husband, who could barely pen a signature
himself, he threw up his hands. “What will happen by reading all these
books?” he asked.
But these were not ordinary books and the classes were not like these
at a school.
The NGO opened membership of the Ganokendra to representatives of the
250 poorest families out of the 311 families in the village - those
earning less than 2,700 taka a month - and ensured that 75 percent of
them were the most disadvantaged members of those families--women.
The classes concentrate on literacy, numeracy, and subjects relevant
to the learners' lives. These might include how to: reduce sewage pollution
of water supplies by using latrines, stave off deforestation by planting
useful trees, and make fuel-efficient ovens to use less wood and reduce
smoke in the house. There is training in skills that could bring in
an income such as needlework, gender development education to secure
for women a say in the running of the village, and leadership training
to make community action more effective.
“Education can transform their whole life,” said Sheulie Aktar, 24,
the local facilitator - a guide, rather than a teacher, who is paid
1,000 taka a month - at the Baniyar Kandar's Twilight Ganokendra, which
Hira attends. “It's not only important to them, it's important to their
children, because they will send them to school.”
“We don't just offer literacy training,” said Sheulie Aktar, who has
a master's degree in management. “We also provide cultural programmes
and micro credit. Members make regular savings and from the central
fund created they give loans to members to help them rear poultry, do
tailoring or other small business activities.”
Inside the Baniyar Ganokendra, which is now housed in a building built
by the local community, the walls are covered from ceiling to floor
in awareness posters and charts related to local issues.
About 15 women are practising reading exercises, such as completing
word-making matrices, in their activity books. They are arranged in
three groups according to their reading grade - five grades, A to E,
which are determined every month. Grade A students can read a newspaper.
Each of the low-grade groups are assisted by a member from a higher
grade, who helps learners with any text they can't understand.
Fatema Khatun, 55, didn't go to school when she was a girl because of
the social taboos. But she is an enthusiastic learner.
“This Ganokendra has taught us a lot of things. Now we can take care
of our health and I'm an expert in making and using the unnata chula
(a fuel-efficient oven with a chimney drawing the smoke out through
a hole in the wall). I teach the others how to make them.”
She said in an earlier adult education centre the whole class was taken
by one teacher and the textbooks were too dominated by pictures and
were too easy, but now they have group teaching.
Her grade D group is being helped by a grade C 16-year-old schoolgirl
Somtto Bhan, who says it gives her good practice in reading.
For Somtto the real attraction of the Ganokendra is the range of literature
it gives her access to, including different types of books and newspapers.
“There's lots of things to learn in them,” she said.
This is perhaps the unique contribution of the Dhaka Ahsania Mission's
Ganokendra work, which is based on a “Community Learning Centre”concept
promoted by UNESCO throughout Asia and the Pacific over the past decade.
Government adult literacy projects have been criticised in the past
for using texts suited to urban middle class learners that don't relate
to life in rural areas.
But Dhaka Ahsania Mission has found a third way, by creating a national
resource centre that can respond to local interests. The subjects are
chosen in response to surveys carried in the rural villages and are
tested on pilot groups before being mass-produced.
Most of them are information books geared to awareness campaigns or
particular skills or fields of knowledge that Ganokendra members say
they want to know more about. They are not written as dry manuals. Instead
the information is imparted through stories about people carrying out
the same tasks, making them an enjoyable read.
This year across Bangladesh, more than 50,000 of the poorest people
will be using Dhaka Ahsania Mission's self-learning guides to learn
how to read and write. After a five-month course and one month reinforcement
learning at one of the 800 Ganokendras, they will reach out for the
books, skills training and small-scale credit that will help them improve
life in their community.
A crucial factor in the success of the centres is that each one is run
by a committee of members and comes together to discuss issues concerning
the whole village.
A survey of Rogaghurampur, a 100-households in village of 450 people
in Jessore district, where 63 families had been active members of the
Ganokendra since 1998, has documented the dramatic changes since the
centre began its work.
By December 2002, the percentage of families using literacy had more
than doubled from 30 to 65, the number using latrines and fuel efficient
ovens had soared; the practice of marrying children off at 13 or younger
had been wiped out with expected knock-on effects on the number and
spacing of pregnancies; the role of women in decision-making and earning
an income had been completely transformed and the percentage of girls
going to school had jumped from 30 percent to 100 percent.
The same kind of records has not been kept in Baniyar Kandar, but Hira's
new 60,000 taka home is just one example of the village-wide changes
that have taken place.
Hira saved enough money from sewing work which she developed at the
Ganokendra and with the help of a loan was able to replace the mud hut.
The spacious rough redbrick bungalow, complete with a brand new corrugated
iron roof, has a broad verandah overlooking the courtyard. Posters adorn
the walls and on the covered sideboard is a television.
Eighteen poor families in Baniyar Kandar now have a house like Hira's
and 100 have a television.
But perhaps more significant is the ebullience and confidence of the
women of the village, did not have to think twice about inviting a group
of outsiders to look around her family compound. Through her use of
literacy she has liberated herself from the constraints of male-dominated
traditions, as well as from many aspects of poverty. Now her husband
asks her to borrow books for him to read.
reading at the Ganakendra in Narsingdi.
the early days, many of the women who returned home late from the classes
were beaten. Men didn't think we should leave the house for anything,”
“But now attitudes have changed completely. The status of women has
been raised a lot. Now if someone says your wife needs to go for training
in Dhaka, the husband will gladly agree.”
A literate environment
At their Dhaka headquarters the Ahsania Mission maintains a library
of more than 200 books it has published for new literates in the villages
on a range of topics.
These include legal rights, such as the benefits of marriage registration
and how to go about it; tree plantation; child health care; embroidery
patterns for dress-making; story books; biographies; comics; cookery
books and a popular book on how to avoid 'bad hair days' using herbs
and natural ingredients such as tamarind root paste.
There is also a collection of posters and literacy games tied to development
issues, for instance a snakes and ladders game in which you throw dice
to progress along squares on a board, but might slide backwards if you
land on one saying “fall ill after taking food without washing” or leap
ahead by landing on one saying “take iodised salt, free yourself from
A database of the titles and contents (www.ahsania.org.blrc) is being
linked to UNESCO's Asia Pacific Cultural Centre, so that NGOs across
the region can share ideas for materials.
The books are graded to match different learner abilities. Ganokendra
members can borrow them for nothing, though many centres charge two
Taka to generate funds to plough back into the community activities.
The startling result is the creation of a literate environment in the
villages, the lack of which has been a major cause of lapsing literacy
among adult learners in other programs. Without books and posters and
signs, literacy may never be used in daily life and can easily be forgotten.
“We are the largest producer of easy to read books,” explains Kazi Rafiqul
Alam, Executive director of Dhaka Ahsania Mission. “Even BRAC (Bangladesh
Rural Advancement Committee), the largest NGO in the Bangladesh, uses