India’s Total Literacy Campaign (TLC) used a new system by making local administrators and community organisations – not central bureaucrats – responsible for implementation. What has been TLC’s lasting impact on the women who administered the programme, worked as volunteer teachers and were taught literacy and numeracy skills. In 2002, ten years after the TLC ended in India, a study assessed its legacy in the Begusarai District of Bihar, a state where there are strong cultural limitations on women’s independence and rights.
The researcher found that by getting large numbers of local people involved, this had offered women unique opportunities to escape social constraints and sexual segregation – essentially to ‘come out of purdah’. Across India, the TLC prepared ten million voluntary trainers for 68 million people in literacy skills in basic reading, writing, and numeracy.
Courses were designed to gain these skills in 200 hours. TLC was implemented in Begusarai by the local branch of a national non-governmental organisation (NGO) – Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) – which works on a range of women’s education, health and livelihoods issues.
BGVS registered 246,000 women and 188,000 men for classes in the 1,100 district villages. As classes for women and men had to be organised separately, over 16,000 women were recruited as teachers.
BGVS played an important role in Begusarai by questioning social constraints on women’s participation in public life. Key findings from interviews with former participants are that: Most organisers were university graduates from upper caste families that own land.
Teaching volunteers – required to have completed at least 8 years of formal schooling – were mostly unmarried women: unlike the women they taught, hardly any were from scheduled (lower) castes. Organisers and volunteers did not earn any income, but were compensated in other ways, including recognition and responsibility in public.
Often, for lower caste women visiting upper caste areas to participate in BGVS activities was going against social limitations: many risked physical and mental abuse to do so. Discrimination based on location, caste, and gender still restricts the women of Begusarai.
The district’s female literacy rate for 2001 of 36 percent is significantly below the national average of 64.4 percent. However, many local women continue with activities related to the TLC’s Post-Literacy Phase –
publishing a local newspaper, running libraries, savings and other self-help groups and supplementary classes to increase school enrolment. The TLC experience in Begusarai suggests that: Female literacy programmes should not be evaluated simply in terms of how many women use new reading and writing skills in their daily lives. To appreciate the 'empowering' potential of literacy campaigns requires understanding the different roles performed by women, the struggles they face and how they overcome them.
As former volunteers develop from adolescence to womanhood and move away from their home, it will be important to re-interview them to assess how these changes continue