|he joy in Mana Mali’s heart was so intense she thought she would burst. She could hardly believe her good fortune, and she struggled to restrain her laughter as she visualized the look of delight she knew she would see on her husband’s face when she arrived home that evening. I did it! I actually did it! Mana sang to herself. I’ve finished the course! I’ve learned how to read and write and add and subtract! My family will be so proud of me. »»»
Because Mana and her husband earn their living by catching and selling fish, being able to accurately count the money exchanged is vital to their business. Before Mana attended the literacy classes, however, she had to depend on others to count the money for her. She never knew if what they told her was true, whether she was being cheated or not. But now, things are different. She can read and count for herself.
“I’ve decided to send my children to school, no matter what the cost,” Mana says. “Without education, this world is very dark.”
Mana is one of 144 women living in the West Bengal region of southeastern India who recently completed a yearlong literacy program developed by the Southern Asia Division’s (SUD) Women’s Ministries Department. This was graduation day for those who had faithfully attended the two-hour classes five days a week, and SUD’s director of Women’s Ministries, Hepzibah Kore, presented a certificate of completion as well as a new Bible and carrying case to each graduate, including Mana.
Kore realizes the significance of the occasion, the dramatic difference that knowing how to read and write will make in the lives of these women. And most important, they also now know about Jesus—who He is and the love He has for them. The Bibles that the women were clutching tightly in their hands or holding close to their chests will remind them continually of their loving Savior.
“People can’t read the Bible unless they can read,” Kore says. “These classes give them confidence, and they begin to seek new meanings for their lives.”
Starting at Square One
According to The World Factbook, only 48 percent of India’s women over the age of 15 can read and write, compared to 73 percent of the men. This high rate of illiteracy among women plagued the thoughts of Kore, and she felt compelled to do something to change the distressing statistic and the lives of the women it represented.
“The difference that knowing how to read and write makes in the lives of India’s women is dramatic,” Kore explains. “It changes everything for them.”
Using just simple methods such as small slates and pieces of chalk, Kore spearheaded a project in 2001 to teach women in India how to read. The theme she adopted for the program is “Never Too Late to Learn,” because not only young women but also many older ones are taking advantage of this opportunity. So far more than 10,000 people—mostly women but also some men—have learned to read through this program. Students from other Christian backgrounds as well as Hindus and Muslims have benefited. Hundreds of people have come to know and accept Jesus as their Savior.
How Does It Work?
Currently, the division has established 200 learning centers in six provinces in the southeastern region of India. Most are in remote villages. About 20 students ages 15 and older attend each literacy center.
The classrooms are often small with no chairs to sit on, no desks, and very little space even to sit cross-legged on the floor—but the women don’t complain. They tell Kore they’re just very happy to have this chance to learn.
Before setting up a center, Women’s Ministries directors from the regional church headquarters approach village leaders to ask permission to hold the classes, particularly because the textbooks used are Bible-based. They are rarely turned down. Kore, with help from Literacy India Trust, a Christian organization based in Madras, then arranges for and trains a teacher, or facilitator, for each center, as well as a supervisor, who oversees five centers. Women’s Ministries pays the facilitators a small monthly stipend of about US$13 for their work, and about US$25 to the supervisors.
The instructors teach basic literacy—reading, writing, and arithmetic—but the changes this learning yields in their lives are remarkable.
Improved Quality of Life
When the women learn to read and write they become aware of their social and legal rights, their income-generating skills improve, and they acquire a voice in the affairs of the family and the community. These abilities greatly enhance their status within both the family and the community, and generate a much higher level of respect.
“A common saying in India is ‘If you educate a man, you educate a person; but if you educate a woman, you educate a family,’ because the women are the family caregivers,” Kore says. “Because of literacy, not only the woman’s status is raised but also that of her whole family.”
The family’s health improves because wives and mothers can explore available medical care programs such as immunizations for their children and family planning options. They can fill out the application forms for the old-age pension, and because they can now sign their names, they can receive additional dry food rations, apply for small government loans, and open their own bank accounts. More job opportunities are available to them, which results in a higher standard of living. They learn to manage their personal finances and can help their children with their homework; therefore, they become more valued by their children, their husbands, and others in the community. Just being able to read the bus signs, which allows them to travel freely from one village to another, greatly improves a person’s quality of life.
According to The Hunger Project Web site,* education makes a significant difference for women in India. Every year girls attend school beyond the fourth grade, it cites, family size shrinks 20 percent, the child death rate drops 10 percent, and wages rise 20 percent.
One Woman’s Story
A 45-year-old woman who was attending the literacy classes gave her life savings to her husband and asked him to buy a certain piece of land and register it in her name. When she saw the documents, however, she was shocked to find that instead of her name being on the deed, the land was to be registered in her father-in-law’s name.
“She knew this because she was now able to read the documents,” Kore explains. “Her husband was very surprised by her new ability, but instead of being angry, he was very proud of her accomplishments.”
The husband eventually registered the land in his wife’s name.
Teachers don’t neglect the practical side of life. They provide students with information about personal and environmental hygiene, nutrition, uses of water, prevention and remedies for common health ailments, women’s health issues, and harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco. AIDS awareness and child care are also addressed.
The SUD Women’s Ministries Department, with support from the General Conference Women’s Ministries Department, has created a program to help women learn a trade. Financial donations provide loan money for literacy program graduates for such purchases as sewing machines, with which they learn to make and repair clothing. Others buy looms, so they can craft and sell shawls. These home businesses increase the family income and its standard of living.
“The literacy program in India is one way we can reach the community with the love of God,” says Heather-Dawn Small, director of the General Conference Women’s Ministries Department. “The program meets a need because as the people learn to read, they are empowered to help their families, put food on the table, clothes on their children, and, most important, they are able to read the Bible and bring the joy of knowing God to their families.”
World Church Support
Hope for Humanity (HFH)—the new name and face of the Adventist Church’s century-old fund-raising program called Ingathering—has been partnering with SUD Women’s Ministries since soon after the literacy program was initiated. HFH provides financial support as well as helps to raise awareness of the program.
“This project is having a tremendous impact on women in India, socially as well as spiritually,” says Maitland DiPinto, director of Hope for Humanity, based at the church’s world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I hear so many stories of women who now can read the instructions on a fertilizer bag for crops and on medication for their children, or go to a bank and actually sign their name and not just give a thumbprint, which can be embarrassing to them or appear demeaning. The biggest difference this makes is in their sense of self-worth and self-value. It transforms their thinking and gives them confidence.”
He adds, “When mothers learn to read, all life indicators in her family go up—health, standard of living. And, most important, each graduate is given a Bible, which they now can read, and not only the women but also their families are coming to know Jesus and being baptized. We can’t begin to measure the dramatic difference that something that seems very simple to most of us—being able to read—is making in these women’s lives and the lives of their families.
“As Adventists, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we really still people of the Book?’ If we are, then there are few projects more important for us to be involved in than equipping people to read God’s Word for themselves. As Hepzi says, they can’t read the Bible unless they can read.”
During a trip to India organized by Hope for Humanity in 2007, Adventist pastor Loren Seibold visited some of the literacy centers. In Seibold’s article, printed in the December 2007 issue
of Adventist World, he highlighted a particular experience:
“One in my group was elderly—thin in hair, teeth, and body,” he wrote. “Her brow furrowed and her hand trembled as she formed a few letters on the slate.
“‘What kept you from learning to read when you were young?’ [he] asked her through a translator. ‘My family was poor,’ she said. ‘I married at 13. No one thought a girl needed education.’
“‘How has this class helped you?’ [he] continued. . . .
“‘It has changed my life.’ . . . ‘My husband and children respect me now,’ she said. ‘I am a more valuable wife and mother.’”
Simple lessons—teaching women to read—are producing dramatic results.
The Adventist Review is partnering with the North American Division’s Hope for Humanity and the Southern Asia Division Women’s Ministries Department to provide Bibles for the literacy class graduates. To learn more about this fund-raising initiative, called Bibles for a New Life, and to help give the Book of books to women in India, please see the link at the top of this article.