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Grandmothers' school shines light on India's struggle against female illiteracy

A unique "grandmothers' school" in Maharashtra, western India, teaches older women to read and write for the first time. But the initiative also highlights the odds that women's education is up against in the country.

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India: It's never too late to learn to read

How do you teach women as old as your mother and grandmother to read and write? It's a question teacher Sheetal More has grappled with since the "grandmothers' school" - a project to tackle female adult illiteracy - opened its doors last year in the picturesque village of Phangane, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Mumbai.

In a makeshift shack under towering trees, a group of women dressed in identical pink saris - the school uniform - sat cross legged on the floor with slates and chalk in their hands, their heads angled forward towards More. Everyone was above the age of 50 and illiterate. Some were pushing 80.

"Many of the grandmothers here are quite old. They don't have a good memory so they forget things easily. That means we need to constantly repeat and go over the same things in class," More, 30, sighed. There were other challenges too - a few women were hard of hearing and More had to raise her voice often.

No more thumbprint

The women recited the alphabet and numbers in Marathi, the local language, tracing the magnified letters in their textbooks, their glass bangles tinkling. The class was boisterous, the women clearly not used to taking instruction. At one point, everyone talked at the same time as Sheetal More helplessly tried to quiet things down.

A woman with a large nose ring and weather-beaten face demanded More's attention as she held up her slate with spidery writing. A couple of women were engaged in an animated conversation about an upcoming wedding; another group of silver-haired students laughed loudly over a shared joke. The two-hour daily classes offer the women a welcome break from their household work. Many have made progress and can now count and sign their own names, giving them a sense of dignity.

Yashoda Kedar smiles during class

Yashoda Kedar can now write her name. She says the school has given her a sense of dignity

"Earlier I used to just put my thumbprint on bank documents. But now I can sign my own name - imagine that! It feels really good. The next time I go to the bank, the officials there will be so impressed," said Yashoda Kedar, one of the students who guessed she's probably 55.

'Forgotten group'

Like Kedar, many women were uncertain of their age; no birth certificates were issued when they were born. Most grew up with grinding poverty. Kedar remembered days going hungry after backbreaking work at home and in the fields. Many of the grandmothers were married off as young girls and were thrust into traditional roles of homemakers and mothers, leaving them with little chance of getting an education.

"This is a forgotten group when it comes to literacy initiatives. Most men in the village can at least write their names. But elderly women have simply been shut out of the system," said Dilip Dalal, founder of the Motilal Dalal Charitable Trust that runs the grandmothers' school.

Dalal's assertion is backed by statistics. India is home to the world's largest population of illiterate adults at 287 million, according to a report supported by the United Nations. Though the country has worked towards combating illiteracy and has made education a fundamental right, experts say female illiteracy and the quality and availability of schools, in particular, remain big problems.

Hurdles remain

And it's not just the grandmothers of Phangane like Yashoda Kedar who lost out on school. The hurdles facing girls' education were all too evident in the village, even today.

Phangane's 500 residents survive on subsistence farming - growing rice, grains, moringa, cucumber and okra. There are few employment opportunities save for odd jobs on construction sites. Women work at home and in the fields and raise children. Many men migrate to nearby towns, some to Mumbai, to look for work.

Detail of a hand writing on a slate

India is home to the world's largest population of illiterate adults

The one primary school in the sleepy hamlet only offers classes up until fourth grade. After that, students have to travel 12 kilometers to the next town if they want to continue learning. There's no bus directly to the village which means students have to clinch a seat on a rental jeep on the outskirts in the morning and then change to a bus. That basically ensures girls drop out.

"Our families would never allow us to undertake the journey alone because they would be worried about our safety and our reputation," Yashoda Kedar's daughter Seema Chaudhary said. The 28-year-old stopped studying after fourth grade, helping her mother and aunts at home and in the fields till she was married off.

Unequal opportunities

Seema's male cousin, on the other hand, Santosh Kedar, went on to study civil engineering in the western city of Pune, having spent years away from his family in Phangane studying in different towns. Much of what the family earns is spent on paying his college fees.

"It's unfair that girls don't have the same opportunities as boys," Seema said as she squatted next to her mother in their modest home and shelled green peas in a bowl. "Girls here are married off early and held back from fulfilling their potential."

Seema Chaudhary with her daughter Gayatri

Seema dropped out of school early; she's determined the same thing doesn't happen to her daughter

Conservative and misogynistic attitudes also play a role. Seema's husband threw her out of their house when she gave birth to a baby girl. "He was hell bent on having a boy. He even threatened to kill our daughter," Seema said.

She moved back to her parents' home in Phangane to raise her daughter Gayatri, who now studies in the second grade. Seema is determined to give the eight-year-old a better future.

"I couldn't study myself but I really want my daughter to be able to have that opportunity," Seema said. "I want her to be able to stand on her own feet and take her own decisions. I'll respect them."

Once Gayatri finishes primary school in the village, Seema plans to move with her to her sister's home in the city of Pune, where there is no dearth of schools and colleges.

Lots of confidence

Women's education has become a hot button issue in Phangane ever since the grandmothers' school opened last March. Yashoda Kedar's family is keen that both Yashoda and her granddaughter Gayatri continue with their studies.

Yashoda's husband Prabhakar was delighted she's becoming literate in her twilight years. "The grandmothers' school will help our village progress. It will make the older women more aware and confident," he said.

A village with huts

The sleepy village of Phangane lacks the infrastructure to provide residents with a good education

Confidence is in plentiful supply. From being able to count the right change for a bus ticket to signing off on parcels delivered by a courier and on her bank documents to being able to read a wedding invitation, Yashoda Kedar listed all the things her new-found skills will allow her to do. Her granddaughter Gayatri helped her with lessons in the evening, correcting her as she wrote on her slate.

"I never thought I'd one day get to go to school and read and write," Kedar said with a wide grin. "Or that my granddaughter would help with my homework. It's unbelievable."

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