Common River’s Female Literacy Program started by accident. After facilitating a training on nutrition for our kitchen staff, I was surprised that none of the six women participants had taken any notes during the training, although I had given them paper and pens to do just that. When I asked why they hadn’t, they said that they didn’t know how to read or write. Asking if they wanted to learn to, they replied in unison “Please, yes!” They had learned to write their names from our primary students after they served them lunch on campus. They were always embarrassed to have to sign documents with a thumb print and then be seen in town with the stigma of purple ink lingering on their thumb and following them around.
After hiring one teacher for our six female staff, within a month the classroom was filled with 40 women. The next month, two more teachers were hired to accommodate 100 women on the waitlist. There are now 150 women attending literacy classes five days a week and another 200 on the waitlist. Fifty women fill each of our three classrooms from 3-5 pm, after the children finish their day.
It continually surprises me how well the classes are attended considering we work in a subsistence farming community that requires an inordinate amount of time to maintain one’s survival. Ethiopia is also a country that has denied girls access to education with a literacy rate of 33% of females 15-24 years old. In most countries I have worked throughout Africa and Asia, women’s attendance is typically low due to husbands’ resistance. Husbands won’t allow women to leave their house for many reasons. They need to do their chores (cook, clean, care for children, cultivate, carry water, etc…), remain confined to the house for protection and control by their husbands, and certainly do not receive a higher education than them. In some Asian countries in which I have worked, a woman is beaten if she even attempts to attend school. Basically, men are afraid of the change that will occur if a woman receives an education. And they are absolutely right, there will be change.
Studies have proven that just the fact of leaving the house to attend school increases a woman’s power within her household. It has also been scientifically proven that women’s literacy is directly correlated to positive health outcomes of children. When women learn to read and write, the infant and child mortality rate drops. It is not so much that they learn to read books about health and nutrition. Rather it is the fact that they become more respected at home by their husband by the mere fact that they leave the house to learn. Their voice then carries more weight in decision-making. Mothers do know best when it comes to children and a man will listen more to a woman who attends a school.
So when I inquisitively asked “How is it that you can get of the house and come to this class daily? What do your husband’s say”? Many of the group answered, “We can come because they are never at home.” There is always a silver lining to every dark cloud and perhaps the fact that men in Aleta Wondo are not often at home, provides a woman the freedom to organize her own life and grab the education she missed. There are also many single headed female households. Others said that they had a hard time convincing their husbands, but as long as they finished their household work, they could leave. They figured out how to do their work more efficiently to escape to study each afternoon. Attendance drops considerably during the coffee season when women are harvesting the beans.
Each year Common River hosts a group of medical students from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Last summer one of the volunteer medical students, (a Pakistani who wishes to remain anonymous), saw our female students trudge barefooted daily to class, for several kilometers through rain and shine. He wanted to buy them each a pair of shoes. He requested the whole group of 150 women to accompany him to a local shoe seller in the town of Aleta Wondo. Each woman selected her own style and fit of leather shoes. A big coffee ceremony was held at the school, as each woman was presented her new shoes. They sang and danced with joy and tears, blessing the student who offered, for many of them, their first new pair of shoes.
The next day, the female students, who had been absent the day before, came asking for shoes. It was decided that only those who had good attendance would receive shoes. The women pleaded to get shoes, saying that their husbands had reprimanded them for not attending school yesterday and for having poor attendance. These women promised their husbands that they would attend regularly from now on. In an ironic twist, men were encouraging their wives not only to go to school, but to go every day! Herein lies an important new strategy which helps ensure increased attendance in our female literacy classes. Discovering that shoes are a key to unlock education for women may be considered by some of us a development breakthrough. We already know the health benefits of wearing shoes. We already know a woman’s love of shoes. We already know a women’s love of education. What we did not know was how shoes could make such a difference. We can now see why some women love shoes even more.
Education is empowering, especially for women who have been denied access to it. Common River is committed to expanding the Women’s Literacy Class by hiring more teachers and building another classroom in response to the high demand. Common River completely welcomes the ensuing change created by empowering women through literacy. If it simply takes a pair of shoes to convince a man that his wife should attend school, and that is enough to allay his fears, so be it. Perhaps fewer women will go bare-footed and more women will hear their voice being heard.
Donna Sillan, MPH
Program Officer, Common River