Wang Zhenglian learned to count numbers without using her fingers last year. Since her husband left for the neighboring town for work, the 35-year-old mother of two kids was left to do everything at home, from cooking and doing the laundry to plowing and baking tobacco.
Wang speaks She, which has no script or characters, and could hardly understand or speak Putonghua (or Mandarin) till last year. But not being able to speak Mandarin or read information pasted at bus stops or depots was not a real problem for her till she went to a town market tried to sell chickens.
Children in a primary school in Rongshui MiaoAutonomous County of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
"They asked me whether I was selling the chickens. I said, 'yes, I buy them'." Wang mispronounced the word "sell", and it sounded like "buy" to the people. So she had to return home without selling a single chicken.
"I seldom went out of our village. If I wanted to go to the town, I had to find a companion who could read, otherwise I would have been lost," she says.
Wang is not the only one in Liubao Village of Luodian County in southwest China's Guizhou Province to have undergone this embarrassing experience. Along with many other members of her She ethnic minority community, she is one of the more than 80 million illiterate people in the above-15 age group in China. Women comprise 72.7 percent of those illiterates, according to National Bureau of Statistics' latest figures.
"I have four sisters and two brothers. But my parents only sent my brothers to school," says Wang. "It's a tradition (in our village and our community) for only boys to attend school."
But that trend seems to be changing. In Liubao alone, 218 women have learned to read and write recently, thanks to the county's literacy programs. Only 42 women in the village failed to attend the classes.
To enable every Liubao woman to read and write, primary school teacher Zhao Huapu began literacy classes last October. Beijing-based NGO Cultural Development Center for Rural Women provided him with financial support and training facilities. Initially, attendance was thin, and though it worried the 38-year-old teacher, he pressed ahead. "Most women here are the backbone of the house because their husbands are away. They have no time to learn to read and write."
Zhao's experience of teaching in a village for 19 years made him schedule the classes after the harvest and at night, when there's not much household chore to do. "The first night, 22 women attended the class; two were carrying their babies on their backs," recalls Zhao. "Their number increased the very next night."
He takes care of their concerns, too. Since they are afraid of snakes, especially at night, he has given a torch to each one of his students so that they can come to and return from the classes safely.
His perseverance bore results within four months because his students, including Wang, had learned to speak basic Mandarin and read and write short sentences by then.
But the path to literacy for such women still faces some challenges. "Some local governments have no long-term commitment (to adult literacy programs). Then there are those that try to bend the rules," says Wu Qing, a retired language professor of Beijing Foreign Studies University and honorary councilor of Cultural Development Center for Rural Women.
"Literacy efforts must be sustained and practical; they should make the illiterates understand the advantages of learning," Wu says. Having trained teachers for adult literacy classes, Wu believes that weaving mundane elements into the courses will have a longer and deeper impact on women than just teaching them how to read and write.
"We have mixed everything rural women are interested in into our course, such as knowledge of medicine and prescription, pig breeding, farming technology, the ills of domestic violence and law," Wu says. "Our class is quite interesting; students learn through playing separate roles and mutual active teaching methods." Since illiteracy rate is high among ethnic minorities, the center also arranges bilingual classes to help the students.
The center has been promoting literacy in rural areas for more than a decade and has helped more than 5,400 women read and write through its own curriculum and textbooks.
Speaking at the UNESCO Regional Conference in Support of Global Literacy in Beijing earlier this month, deputy director of the Ministry of Education's Basic Education Department Yang Jin said the central government will soon launch literacy programs for women, ethic minorities and migrant workers. "It's important to leverage international expertise and NGOs to combat illiteracy in China," Yang said.
Director of UNESCO's Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education Sheldon Shaeffer has praised NGOs for their contribution to literacy programs. "NGOs have collected valuable experience and developed good models for literacy, which can be spread wider," Shaeffer says. "The main challenge faced by literacy programs is that some children learn basic things in primary and middle schools but finding them of no use tend to forget everything later."
"We need to develop a sustainable system to ensure that those who learn the basics don't forget them. Parents or would-be parents should receive more attention because their attitude toward education will influence their children's educational future greatly.
"The quest for knowledge and the supportive attitude of their families and the community will encourage them to continue learning," he says. "Besides reading and writing, people need more functional skills and knowledge to improve their lives."
UNESCO was impressed by the success of a literacy program in the remote county of Longsheng in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and awarded the 2007 International Reading Association Literacy Prize to the local government last month. About 87 percent of the county's area is mountainous, and it is one of the most impoverished in the country with a high illiteracy rate among its women.
But thanks to the continuous efforts of the county's Community Education Administration Center, most of the illiterate women have learned basic reading and writing and some other skills to improve their lives.
"The center has put in place a wide system of rural education, including elements of hygiene, technological faculties and creative activities targeted at women of all ages, cultures and traditions," according to a UNESCO statement.
Pan Jifeng, 43, an ethnic Yao from the county who couldn't go to school because of poverty, attended literacy classes organized by the center several years ago. Today he can read and write and has also learned how to plant honeysuckle, a medicinal herb. The benefits of literacy are not lost on such people. Says Pan: "Thanks to the skill, my family earned 30,000 yuan (US$3,900) last year, more than 16 times the amount we used to earn in the 1990s."
(China Daily August 16, 2007)