Meredith Knezek
May 1995

Literacy and Women in Developing Nations

If everyone shared common beliefs about literacy, its purpose and its meaning, the complex problem of unequal literacy levels among genders might not exist. Unfortunately, due to prejudices and stereotypes, not all members of society have been given equal access to an education. In countries all across the world statistics show men achieve higher levels of literacy than women. These discrepancies in literacy levels directly reflect society's stereotypical perceptions of women and their role in society. In developing countries especially, the gap between gender literacy levels is extremely large.

Because of the noticeable difference between literacy levels among men and women, the United Nations declared 1990 to be International Literacy Year with female illiteracy its focal point. At that time, estimates showed that one third of all women could not read nor write. UNESCO, one of literacy's leading sponsors, declared the "lack of advancement in the education of women and girls is 'the heart of the problem of illiteracy'"[UN Chronicle, p56]. The problem is particularly bad in developing countries. According to one United Nations report "females have higher rates of illiteracy than males in all of the developing regions...For the least developed group as a whole, female illiteracy is 73 per cent and male, 53 per cent"[UN Chronicle, p57].

In many developing countries the gap between male and female literacy levels exists because women have been discouraged from receiving the same educational benefits of men. A survey of Third World countries "reveals, women in these nations face a wide range of prejudices. In work, health, education, and law, Third World women are second-class citizens"[Scholastic Update, p24]. Women also suffer from "decreased spending on education due to economic constraints"[UN Chronicle, p57] and "traditional attitudes about women's role in society"[UN Chronicle, p57]. Many cultures view the male as the authority figure and women as their inferiors. In this type of environment, women's education is viewed as a threat to the their way of life. "Parents may fear that education will harm their daughters' marriage prospects" [Scholastic Update, p25], or that their daughter's dowry will have to increase. Studies show that educated women marry educated men, and educated men require larger dowries for their wives[Hill and Lind, p26]. Even an uneducated man will demand a larger dowry for a literate women. This occurs because the men fear that an educated women might "expose their ignorance and, above all, challenge their power position within the family"[Lind, p25].

The concept of a relationship between education and social status is an important one in discussions about literacy. Historically education has been used by the dominant group in a society as a tool to maintain their superior position. By denying women an education, men can maintain a superior position over them. Education will empower women with the ability to question authority, ask informed questions, and search for solutions. In many countries this will topple traditional gender relations; educated women will inevitably fight for their equality. "The dilemma for both men and women is how to reconcile the man's self-image as dominant authority to the women's self-image as an equal"[Hill and King, p152].

Despite the threat to their gendered traditions, there has been a trend to increase the educational level of women in developing countries. "The experience of over two decades of development efforts around the world has shown that countries which place the emphasis upon the private economic sector achieve the best development results. This means that, especially for the least developed countries, the women's path to development is the best path. Emphasis upon the problems, concerns, and capacities of women is the bright hope of the development future"[Reagan, p90]. With increased literacy, women will be able to influence the economic, social, and human aspects of their community. Education "'can enhance a society's ability to overcome poverty, increase incomes, improve health and nutrition, and reduce family size'"[UN Chronicle, p57].

By making education available to all members of society, a nation can create a larger and more skilled labor force. Education endows a person with self-confidence, the ability to make educated choices, understand directions, and develop new concepts. These skills are the driving force behind technological and economic advancement. Also, by becoming part of the labor force, women will be able to add to their family's income, allowing many families to raise their standard of living. Statistics show "that in most parts of the world where the standard of living is high, literacy is equally high among men and women...On the contrary, where the standard of living is lower, fewer people - especially women - are educated"[Viedma, p20]. These facts alone are an incentive for governments to create a national policy which will overcome illiteracy.

A questionnaire distributed by the World YMCA in 1988 confirms the hypothesis that providing females with an education promotes a nation's economy. The survey shows that women who receive literary training "are better equipped to search for jobs and can therefore earn more. They realize that they can do some jobs which are traditionally considered to be for men only [, and] They are more able to run small businesses and keep records on their own"[Lind, p24]. Educating women allows a country to tap into a previously unused resource, thus heightening the level of production the country can achieve.

The campaign for women's education is not based solely on the economic benefits it will provide. Many women are beginning to realize the impact education will have on their lives.

Not long ago a group of newly literate women from the south coast of Kenya were explaining the advantages of their recently acquired skills in reading, writing and calculation. Now they could sign their names they had more control over money transactions. They could read medical prescriptions and instructions. "Our eyes have been opened, "said one of them, expressing the new sense of pride and increased self-reliance they all felt[Lind, p24].
The benefits of women's education extends to all aspects of society. Besides contributing to a nation's economy, educated women are an asset to a nation's private sector. "Women's education is also associated with quantifiable increases in home output - in the form of better health and nutrition, more attention given to each child, and so on - despite the fact that better-educated women are likely to spend less time in the home"[Hill and King, p68]. Educated women tend to marry later in life and have less children. Also there is an inverse correlation between the level of education and child mortality rates. Women who have had an opportunity to educate themselves are more aware of prenatal health care, hygiene, and nutritional practices[Hill and King, p12]. "'For every year of mothers' education, child mortality is reduced 7 to 9 per cent'"[UN Chronicle, p57].

The greater amount of knowledge a women possesses, the more she can influence and contribute to her society. Through education women gain "political awareness, participation and organizational skills"[Lind, p24] which enables them to become effective community leaders. It is also proven that educated women have a profound effect on future generations. A key strategy behind continuing women's education is encouraging females in professional postitions, such as teaching. The success of these women will provide young girls with role models of their same sex who will motivate and excite these girls to educate themselves.

Many developing nations have recognized these benefits of women's education and adopted mass literacy programs. These programs were implemented in countries "where both the state and the people concerned expected literacy to be one of many factors which would improve social, political, and economic conditions and help develop human and material resources"[Lind, p26]. Unfortunately, despite women's desire for education, these campaigns have had difficulty encouraging women to participate. Some women are "overburdened with domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning, fetching water and firewood, as well as farming and earning money"[Lind, p25]. Others are "directly discouraged by the attitudes of men"[Lind, p25].

Literacy campaigns, however, are beginning to have an impact on many communities. Where these programs have the full support of national and local leaders they have been effective in reducing illiteracy.

The reason why this support [is] so important was explained by one woman who was asked what her husband thought about her participation in literacy classes. "Yes, he grumbles a bit, as men do, "she said. "Some men are very worried, and they don't let their wives attend classes. But it's too late, I think. When the Area Commissioner held a meeting here both men and women were asked to come. We didn't dare, in the beginning. But the cell leader had brought his wife, and she came back to fetch us. The Area Commissioner had complained that so few women were present and said that he would not start the meeting until everyone had met up[Lind, p26].
These mass literacy campaigns, supported by the government officials and local leaders, have had excellent success in reaching out and educating thousands of illiterate women.

Expanding women's education has become an important objective for developing countries. The benefits are undeniable, educated women contribute positively to every aspect of society. Within the community they add to the labor force, increasing GNP, and ultimately increasing a country's level of income. In the home they promote health care, and education, creating a standard for the future. For developing nations to continue to grow it is crucial that they provide education to the entire poputation.

Meredith Knezek is a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is studying Industrial Management. Comments: send email to