Technology enabled Professional Development Opportunity (Bhopal, India)

Why we need women’s literacy programs?

India currently has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world with 287 million which is 37% of the global total. Gains in literacy rates are effectively cancelled by other simultaneous changes such as population growth, ageing, and continued increase in poorly educated youth. While there has been a significant decline in gender disparity in literacy rates over the last fifty years, we know little about the effect of this literacy on women’s employability and income levels. Data shows that a fraction of our female adult population are designated as workers, and of that over 90% work in the informal sector. A negligibly small fraction is considered skilled or formally trained.

When competing with other education development sub-sectors such as basic education, secondary education, higher education, and now even early childhood education, adult literacy and skills fall far behind on perceived priorities for national development. There is an unfounded view that adult literacy is no longer as big of a problem and national campaigns no longer focus on it as they did back in the 1980s. As a result, the budget for adult literacy is very small. It is important to understand that even though literacy rates have improved significantly over the last decades, we need to remind ourselves that to date, over 40% of women in India cannot read or write. Advocacy and push for inclusion in social campaigns is key to raising public awareness and garnering community support. With lack of sufficient funds, many projects are carried out ineffectively. Realizing the very seriousness of this situation, we decided to focus on a skilling project in India as a pathway to lifelong learning for disadvantaged women.

A skilled and literate population is the key to a country’s sustainable development and stability. And we must realize that Lifelong learning is no longer a “nice to do policy”. It is of paramount relevance to increase and strengthen the productivity of individuals in an economy, for transitioning over to formal economies, and to ensure equity in entitlements and well being through old age. It is particularly more important to emphasize lifelong learning from a gender point of view to allow all the girls who stayed out of schooling and other learning opportunities to catch up later in life. At Nayi DISHAA we strongly believe in expanding opportunities across life stages and respect entitlements of all individuals, regardless of age and gender.

The nature of our collaboration

Our team at Nayi DISHAA has taken up the initiative to strengthen the literacy component of women’s empowerment through our collaboration with Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK), a non-profit organization in areas affected by one of the most brutal industrial disasters- the Bhopal gas tragedy. Over the last two and half decades, MSK has benefitted the lives of thousands of women who are mostly illiterate. They learn textile related skills such as tailoring, block printing, and embroidery and produce materials that are sold commercially. Each woman is paid a fair wage. The sales of the products help with wages and the raw materials. In addition, MSK receives grants from the Textile Ministry that helps to run the administrative costs of the organization. Their key mission is to impart skills to make women economically independent.           

Integrating skills and literacy development through the pathway of a local livelihoods program is one of the pathways we started exploring among our early projects. We have been working with MSK to understand the “literacy” needs of the women. That combined with research, we offer MSK with technical advice on how to strengthen the literacy component of their “skilling” project. We use our research endeavors in collaboration, for MSK to advocate for adult literacy and skills development. Advocacy is a joint mission of our collaboration.

Assessing the ‘Needs’ of the participants

Nayi DISHAA’s researcher conducted a focus group session with the MSK team in July 2017. Since then the Nayi DISHAA team has been conducting informal interviews and field visits in Bhopal to gather perspectives from various stakeholders including participants and managers of MSK. The focus group results suggested that the group was mainly interested in computer literacy and conversational English classes. The ladies were ready to free some time during their time at the work-shed to attend the classes.

Information gathered through a needs assessment was supplemented with a review of national policy texts and regional and international literature on adult literacy and lifelong learning. Initially, we proposed lessons in Hindi and basic numeracy – to help them with basic daily operations, such as measurements for their tailoring and crafts, setting up and operating bank accounts, read signs, calculate expenses, use technology and internet applications, etc. However, the participants expressed different expectations – they wanted to learn English so that they can send their children to English medium schools and help with their homework, along with some basic computer knowledge to enable them to find latest designs etc. to enhance their current work. Given the lack of resources in terms of funding and opportunity cost of worker’s time, the curriculum needed to be designed with a clear focus on improving skills application and productivity and also be able to meet with participants’ needs. So we went back and spent more time with the community to try to meet somewhere in the middle – allow ourselves to challenge our assumptions about what we think is the best for them, and enable them to distinguish between what they want and what they currently need.

The ‘Pilot’

Based on our findings from the needs assessment, we designed a curriculum that integrates literacy with the professional and daily needs of women workers at MSK. It includes components of conversational English that will enable the workers to communicate with English speaking customers who buy their products at various events and fares across the country and also be able to help their children with their homework in English. The computer literacy component aims at familiarizing them with computer hardware and performing basic operations – conducting google search, browsing through Facebook, saving designs from the internet, printing an image, creating flyers for their products etc.

Our team also sponsored two laptops, a projector and printer in the workers shed, so they have easy access to the machines and can also practice in their spare time. We hired a teacher who is well versed in conversational English and computers, and trained her to effectively impart our curriculum. We schedule regular check-ins with the teacher and manager to get their feedback, based on which we provide additional learning materials and resources. In order to motivate them to regularly attend the classes, we have to ensure that it is an interactive method integrated well in their daily life and work needs.

How our project fits into the bigger picture?

In designing and planning our activities, as assessed the needs and potential of our collaboration, we faced numerous challenges. While some of these challenges are specific to the context we are working in, the others, and mostly overarching ones, stem from weak global advocacy and oversights in policy and systemic framework for skills and adult literacy projects in the country. Overall, we see that discourse on adult literacy and skills development continues to be fragmented by sectors and life stages. There is lack of continuity in envisioning how each life stage builds on to the next and that older population’s literacy and skills is just as relevant to the development of our children and youth as vice versa.

Inter-sectoral coordination is weak. The national policies and schemes for adult literacy come under the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of HRD. We need to see better coordination and planning between ministries, and the involvement of Ministry of Labor and Employment. There needs to be clear guidelines on the role of the private sector, not only to increase the potential of their responsibility towards their employees’ continued learning, but also to strengthen the match between the demand and supply of skills.

Our collaboration is a great example of public-private partnership. The findings from our pilot program will provide us further grounds to advocate the need for adult literacy programs. We plan to meet and start a dialogue with the State Adult Literacy Department of the Government to increase funding for similar programs.