<%-- Page Title--%> Development <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 112 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 4, 2003

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A Village Revolution

S.M. Anwar Hossain


A pioneering style of literacy learning being promoted across Bangladesh is enabling women to transform their lives and those of their families.

Hira 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 Hira.

Residents of Maheshpur engaged in a conversation with the Ganokendra supervisor.

When 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.

Women reading at the Ganakendra in Narsingdi.

“In 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,” said Hira.
“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 goitre”.
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 our books.”



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