Making HERstory: How literacy programmes can transform the lives of India’s rural women

By Ria Chauhan

Every 8 September, International Literacy Day provides an opportunity to reflect on how education and development initiatives can be used to eradicate illiteracy. Worldwide, poor literacy skills are associated with limited opportunities for personal development and a reduced ability to contribute to both society and the economy. Illiteracy presents a significant barrier to development in India, home to 35% (313 million) of the world’s illiterate population, with rampant gender inequality meaning that 59% of these are women. There is also a significant urban-rural divide in India’s adult female literacy rate – 50.6% in rural areas versus 76.9% in urban areas. Given these inequalities, gender-sensitive initiatives are needed to improve the literacy of India’s rural women, and in turn, their livelihoods.

Photo credit: Development Alternatives

Development Alternatives is a social enterprise dedicated to delivering socially equitable and scalable development outcomes in India. Its TARA Akshar+ adult literacy programme seeks to transform the lives of women in the country’s marginalised rural communities, many of whom will have missed out on educational opportunities in their childhood. In the last ten years, the programme has taught over 235,000 women across eight Indian states to read, write and do simple arithmetic.

Using innovative ICT-based technology, TARA Akshar+ spends an initial 56 days imparting functional literacy in Hindi and basic arithmetic. Recognising that it is not enough to simply teach women to read and write, but that they must also understand how to use these skills to improve their livelihoods, this is followed by a six-month ‘post-literacy’ programme (called Gyan Chaupali). Here, women apply their new literacy skills to learn about finance, business, and health, as well as their rights and entitlements as citizens – common knowledge gaps among India’s rural women that prevent them from accessing the same social and economic opportunities as men. By doing so, the programme intends to improve women’s agency and independence, and to empower them to determine their own futures.

Turning her life around: Kalui’s story

One of these women is Kalui Devi, a 40-year-old mother of five from the village of Chakjudawan in Uttar Pradesh. Known for its patriarchy and rampant poverty, the village’s women have been historically confined to the unpaid labour of child-rearing and managing the household. With few opportunities available to them outside of the home, women often miss out on education, employment, and having a say in matters of village management. Despite these obstacles, Kalui aspired to become literate, driven by a desire to inspire her children and create a gender-equal future for her village. She wanted to be able to sign her name instead of using a thumb impression – the method used by India’s illiterate to give consent on legal documents – as well as to learn how to read signboards, travel by herself, and help manage the accounts of the shop that her family runs.

Joining TARA Akshar+ in April 2018, Kalui learnt to read and write before continuing to the post-literacy programme, where she was taught about enterprise development, the environment, and women’s rights. Noticing that her village was becoming increasingly littered with single-use plastic waste, Kalui was inspired to use her newfound knowledge and entrepreneurial skills to start her own business making low-cost, recyclable paper bowls. Her business had a dual objective of starting a female-owned enterprise that would employ other women (particularly important given that the Female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) in India is only 23%, versus 76% for men), while also helping to improve her environment.

As her business prospered, Kalui started to earn around INR 5,000 (£50) a month. In recognition of her work, Kalui was appointed as a Sanitation and Water Conservation Motivator as part of the Swachh Bharat (‘Clean India’) Mission, India’s national government-led campaign seeking universal sanitation coverage. Raising awareness and helping to bring about behaviour change in her village, Kalui also shared the stage with government representatives at various events. This included a celebration for last year’s International Literacy Day, where she used her platform to bring the importance of women’s empowerment to the attention of her local governmental officials, who have since invited her to co-create new initiatives that promote social and economic empowerment in her district. A woman who, until recently, did not possess any literacy skills was now an educated and socially aware leader in her community, who had not only turned her own life around but helped change her village for the better.

Kalui being appointed as a motivator under the Swacch Bharat Mission. Photo credit: Development Alternatives

Kalui’s story demonstrates the transformative effect that literacy and capacity-building initiatives can have on the lives of India’s rural women. By combining literacy with gender-sensitive skills training, TARA Akshar+ has helped women become better decision-makers both at home and in their local community. Some of the women that learnt to read and write through the programme have since become sarpanches (elected heads of villages), increasing the influence of women in India’s traditionally male-dominated political sphere. Through TARA Akshar+, women have also improved the well-being of themselves and their families, become economically active, and strengthened their local economies, crucial to achieving gender equality and wider socio-economic development in India.

Find out more about the work of Development Alternatives here.

Ria works in development communications and knowledge management. She has a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and has interests in gender and sustainable, inclusive development.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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