Women and literacy: a Nepal perspective

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This article looks at adult women's experiences of literacy and literacy learning in a remote area of Western Nepal. As part of a research degree at Sussex University, I spent eight months living in a small village community where an American aid agency was implementing a development programme, comprising of a literacy class with follow-up income-generating activities for women. Drawing on an “ideological” approach to literacy research, I investigated how women and men of differing ages and economic backgrounds used literacy in their everyday lives. My research aimed to move away from the simple polarisation of women and men, traditional and developed, to analyse what meanings of literacy and gender were shared or disputed between different groups of people and how they reacted to literacy interventions by a foreign aid agency.

By looking at three main kinds of literacy practices which so-called “illiterate” women participated in—existing everyday practices such as religious reading; new everyday practices such as account keeping introduced by the aid agency; and the literacy class which ran every evening in the village—this article analyses how women reacted to different kinds of literacies and what they gained from attending a literacy class. Everyday literacies tended to be seen as separate or even in opposition to the literacy class or new practices since they were learnt informally in the home. Many new literacy practices, such as form filling or keeping minutes, were viewed by both men and women as symbolic of the agency's authority but not necessarily useful. The literacy class introduced women to new roles as “class participants” and more participatory methods of teaching, but they preferred the kind of education seen in local schools so encouraged the teacher to adopt chanting methods and mirror the hierarchical teacher–pupil relationship.

Though the women contested the dominant model of literacy and gender presented to them by the aid agency—that reading and writing would help in their existing role as mothers or wives or were useful for income generating—they wanted to become “educated” by attending the literacy class. They felt they gained a new identity through becoming literate and valued the additional social space that the class gave them as a group of women from differing backgrounds. Certain new practices like creative writing, though imposed by the aid agency, were welcomed by women at the class as enabling them to have a new voice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-364
Number of pages6
JournalInternational Journal of Educational Development
Issue number4
Early online date20 Apr 2000
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2000


  • Adult education
  • Adult literacy
  • Development
  • Ethnography
  • Gender
  • Nepal

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