According to last census held in 2001, the percentage of female literacy in the country is 54.16. While the literacy rate in the country has increased from 18.33 per cent in 1951 to 65.38 per cent, the female literacy rate has also increased from 8.86 per cent in 1951 to 54.16 per cent. During the period 1991-2001, the female literacy rate increased by 14.87 per cent whereas male literacy rate rose by 11.72 per cent. Hence the female literacy rate actually increased by 3.15 per cent more compared to male literacy rate.
Historically, a variety of factors have been found to be responsible for poor female literate rate, viz gender based inequality, social discrimination and economic exploitation, occupation of girl child in domestic chores, low enrolment of girls in schools, and low retention rate and high dropout rate. It is pertinent to note that gender disparity still persists with uncompromising tenacity, especially in the rural areas and among the disadvantaged communities.
Since India’s Independence, the provision of educational opportunities for women has been an important part of the national Endeavour in the field of education. The Government has adopted several strategies for increasing female literacy in the country. Prominent among them are the National Literacy Mission for imparting functional literacy, Universalisation for Elementary Education, and Non-Formal Education, Various literacy campaigns have also contributed towards increasing female literacy.
The Government of India launched the National Literacy Mission in 1988 for eradication of adult illiteracy. Since women account for an overwhelming percentage of the total number of illiterates, the National Literacy Mission is for all practical purposes a Mission of imparting functional literacy to women. Total literacy campaigns launched since 1988 under the aegis of the National Literacy Mission laid emphasis on making efforts to: create an environment where women demand knowledge and information, empowering themselves to change their lives; inculcate in women the confidence that change is possible, if women work collectively; spread the message that education of women is a pre-condition for fighting against their oppression; and highlight the plight of the girl child and stress the need for Universalisation of elementary education as a way of addressing the issue.
The literacy campaigns have contributed to the promotion of female literacy and women’s empowerment and have resulted in heightened social awareness, increased school enrolment, and gender equity and women empowerment among other things. The literacy campaigns have heightened social awareness among women regarding the importance of education, both for themselves as well as for their children. Large numbers of women have been participating whole-heartedly in the literacy campaigns as learners and volunteers.
Because of the campaign mode and creation of a positive environment for literacy, women receive a social sanction to participate in the literacy programs. As women come out of their homes and take part in the campaigns with great enthusiasm, they acquire a heightened sense of self-awareness and a desire to gain knowledge about host of women’s issues.
The literacy campaigns have also motivated and encouraged women learners to. educate their children, particularly girls by enrolling them in formal schools. In fact, the biggest achievement of the adult literacy program has been its impact on girls’ education. The confidence of the girls, as they perform drill or play football, is the result of the awareness among neo-literate parents that girls need to be educated and outgoing. The need to provide equal opportunity to both girls and boys generated greater demand for the quantity and quality of primary schooling.
The literacy classes conducted under literacy campaigns provided women an opportunity to break the isolation which is socially structured into their lives. It gave them a chance to meet other women and learn collectively, rather than learn singly as individuals. The newly acquired literacy skills enhanced the ability of women to solve family problems and learn new skills. Women are communicating how they have started feeling more confident, how their articulation has improved, how they have become more discerning and how they have learnt to function autonomously.
Total literacy campaigns have provided illiterate adult women, who have been denied access to formal schooling, with a great opportunity for reading, writing, increasing awareness levels and skills training.
Literacy campaigns have thus actively promoted gender equity and have sought to empower them to take decisions about themselves, their families and their communities.
The impact of literacy on women’s life has often been dramatic. In Poddukuttai, Tamil Nadu, women learnt how to bicycle and acquired ownership right in stone quarries. In Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, a lesson in the literacy Primer inspired women to launch anti-arrack agitation that later engulfed the entire district and the state. Women have thus been empowered at both individual and collective levels as a result of their participation. This has resulted in improving the status of women within their own families. Traditionally, women had little say in the family decision making, but through participation in literacy programs, they have begun to express their newly found self-belief in having say both within and outside the family.
Another area in which women’s equality has shown a major improvement as a result of adult literacy programs is the area of enrolment of boys and girls in schools. As a result of higher participation of women in literacy campaigns, the gender gap in literacy levels is gradually getting reduced. Even more significant is the fact that disparity in enrolment of boys and girls in neo-literate households is much lower compared to the non-literate householders.
Participation of women in literacy campaigns has opened several opportunities for neo-literate women to step out of the households and involve themselves in some enterprise or a new vocation. Besides becoming entrepreneurs, women have formed groups that try to sensitize their fellow sisters to the need of collective action against social ills. These women have also set up banks that promote the habits of thrifts and savings. At some places, women have also learnt to maintain hand pump thereby breaking their dependence for repair on mechanics from outside the village.
In almost all the districts, the literacy campaigns have gone beyond the transaction of mere literacy skills and have served to enhance knowledge and skills for better management of expenditure and improving earning capacities. In several districts, the women participants in literacy campaigns have begun to set aside their earnings not only in regular banks but also in specially thrift societies.
Literacy campaigns in most districts have taken up health and hygiene issues as an integral component of adult education programs. These campaigns have helped to spread knowledge about health care and nutrition, thereby enabling mothers to keep their family in better health and to care better for their children.