Guest blog: Lauryn Oates on literacy success in Afghanistan

February 18, 2014
A literacy classroom in the Afghan village Butarak. Credit: Lauryn Oates

Literacy, and particularly female literacy rates, is among the best measures of sustainable development. This is one reason why education deserves to be put on a pedestal within aid and development assistance.

When citizens are educated, they are better equipped to tackle problems like poverty, disease and instability, reducing the burden on foreign donor governments. Yet in Afghanistan, illiteracy rates have remained stubbornly low, despite numerous other human development indicators, such as maternal mortality and access to primary healthcare, skyrocketing over the past decade. Data from 2011 (UNICEF) found that only one in five young women (aged 15 to 24) was literate.

There are several reasons for this, and among those we at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan) have identified, is a lack of reading material. Many people who have limited schooling, such as a few years of primary school, lose their literacy because of limited opportunities to apply it. There is a very weak local publishing industry, with most books being imported and of limited relevance to new readers in Afghanistan.

Another reason is a very low quality of public education. Teaching methods are largely outdated, relying on ineffective measures such as rote memorization, in part because most teachers have had no pedagogical training.

A third reason is that literacy needs other assets to reinforce learning and link it into people’s everyday lives. These assets include things like rights education, financial literacy (and opportunities to apply this – like opening a savings account), health and nutrition literacy, social support such as peer networks, and access to safe spaces.

CW4WAfghan has tried to address some of these needs in its unique program, Afghanistan Lowalee! / Afghanistan Reads! which is a network of community literacy centres in six provinces of Afghanistan. In each literacy class, students have a “mini library”. Teachers are trained in basic librarianship and reading promotion so that they know how to ignite students’ interest in reading.

Students borrow books, so that their family members are also exposed to reading, encouraging practices like parents reading to children. The books were published in Afghanistan, in local languages and are designed for new readers – they are short, illustrated books on topics of local interest, ranging from stories and folktales to health information to topics such as animal husbandry or Afghan history.

All the AR! teachers are trained in pedagogy, literacy teaching and andragogy, which are teaching strategies developed for adult learners. Their practice emphasizes hands-on learning using active learning methods. AR! classrooms, which are typically in private homes, are set up to engage learners.

For example, student work is displayed on classroom walls, which is unusual in Afghanistan, which tends to be more teacher-centric. Literacy learners also learn about basic rights, about health, hygiene and nutrition, and in some sites, take part in livelihoods education.

The result? AR! methods are working. I visited an AR! classroom recently in a village called Butarak. A 35-year-old student named Diljah told me, “I could not read one word when I entered the class. Now I can use the mobile phone, write a letter. I can read. It took me two and a half months to learn to read.” Diljah helps her youngest son, in second grade, with his homework. Next, she wants to learn to drive.

Another student, Robina, age 25, who loves reading books to her kids, told me, “I can read the newspaper, I can read library books. My life is completely different.” And 18-year-old Maleka, kept home as a child while her brothers went to school, was tasked with doing all the housework after her mother died. Illiterate three month ago, she has big plans today. She plans to transition into a public school, graduate and go to medical school.

Literacy has a cascading effect. In our classes, we see women’s worlds expand, as they gain literacy and then go on to open businesses, start a women’s shura (local political council), take part in community decision-making, take charge of their children’s education, or improve hygiene practices in their village. We know, too, that literacy is intergenerational: literate mothers tend to raise literate children, interrupting a cycle of poverty and lack of education.

Literacy programs need to be strategic and ensure access to relevant reading material, to well-trained teachers, and should be complemented with other assets integrated into literacy teaching. If we can get literacy teaching right, literacy outcomes can be better sustained. As we have seen over and over in our projects, literacy is a foundation for empowerment. When women can read and write, they gain access to public life, participating in the social, economic and political life of their communities and their country.

Literacy is the first step to social transformation.

Lauryn Oates is projects director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan) and a freelance consultant. She graduated with an MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding and was RRU's spring 2013 Alumni Leadership Award winner.

Afghanistan Lowalee! / Afghanistan Reads! Is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and also supported by the Linda Norgrove Foundation.