Adult Literacy – A Game Changer in The Story of Women Empowerment

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The Global Education Monitoring Report (2016) cited the global adult illiteracy rate in 2014 to be 15 per cent, which was equivalent to 758 million adults. Out of this, 63 per cent of adults unable to read and write were women. The literacy rate in India has shown an improvement from 64.8 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011. There is considerable optimism about India’s recent economic advancement. However, the nation’s progress in terms of adult literacy and lifelong learning has been a mixed bag of successes.

As a tool, literacy has been seen as having the potential to meet people’s most vital needs and to stimulate social, cultural, political and economic participation, especially of disadvantaged groups (UNESCO, 1995 and 1997 – Education For All Report, 2006). Even though providing a systematic, evidence-based account of the benefits of adult literacy is not easy, for several reasons, the limited available evidence suggests that as far as cognitive outcomes are concerned, the successful completion of adult literacy programmes yields benefits similar to formal schooling (Oxenham and Aoki, 2002).

The practice of literacy is found to be instrumental in people’s achievement of a range of capabilities, such as maintaining good health and living longer, learning throughout life, controlling reproductive behaviour, raising healthy children and educating them. The low female literacy rate has a dramatically negative impact on family planning efforts in India. In a study by Suman et al (2013), literate women are known for taking informed reproductive and healthcare decisions. These result in population stabilisation and better infant care, reflected by lower birth rates and infant mortality rates (IMRs), respectively.

Coulombe et al. (2004), using data from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) to investigate the relationship between literacy and economic growth, concluded that the difference in the average skill levels among OECD countries explained well the 55 per cent of difference in economic growth over 1960–94. This implies that investments in raising the average level of skills could yield large economic returns. Adult literacy programmes appear to yield a wide range of benefits, particularly in terms of self-esteem and empowerment, which go beyond the results of just schooling. The very scant evidence also indicates that adult literacy programmes are as cost-effective as primary schooling, raising important questions as to why investment in these programmes has been relatively neglected until recently.

In India, an evaluation of a literacy programme using the Total Literacy Campaign approach showed that “women learners had a strong desire to learn. They liked to go to the literacy classes because this gave them an opportunity to meet others and to study collectively. Thus, literacy provided women with a social space, away from home.” (Patel in UNESCO, 2003c, p. 142)

The TARA Akshar+ literacy programme (a computer based literacy initiative) by Development Alternatives has made more than two lakh women literate over the last decade. This programme not only focusses on women’s literacy, but additionally provides them with basic numeracy in 56 days, which is followed by the post literacy (Gyan Chaupali) component. This post literacy initiative is of six months, which works towards providing the neo literates an exposure to the application of literacy and to the outside world, through guest speaker sessions and practice sessions to reiterate the newly acquired literacy.

The social relationships divulged in the impact analysis study of the TARA Akshar+ programme (conducted by a group of scientists including Dr. Ashwini Deshpande from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi) have shown the shift of power relations from negatively to positively impacting women’s well-being and lives. Through few other impact-capturing studies, it was found that ‘TARA Akshar+ adult literacy’ in conjunction with ‘livelihoods opportunities’ played an important role in realigning the previously defined power relations. From personal experiences and reviews, it has been observed that TARA Akshar+ participation does result in significant impacts on mechanisms that underlie the theory of change. The neo-literate women now have increased general knowledge on health and educational matters, confidence in dealing with people outside their families, and a sense of self-reliance. Within households, women now are more likely to be exempted from seeking permission to leave their house. While making decisions with the spouse, there is an increased probability that the woman would be consulted and not dictated.


Khalida Gani Dutt, The role of adult literacy in transforming the lives of women in rural India 2017, PhD Dissertation study , Stockholm University, https://su.diva

Suman SaurabhSonali Sarkar, and Dhruv K. Pandey,  J Family Med Prim Care. 2013 Oct-Dec; 2(4): Female Literacy Rate is a Better Predictor of Birth Rate and Infant Mortality Rate in India 349–353

UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2006, Literacy for Life,

Martínez, Rodrigo and Fernández, Andrés, 2010., The Social and economic impact of illiteracy: analytical model and pilot study,

Ashwini Deshpande, Christopher Ksoll, Annemie Maertens and Vinitha R. Varghese, The impact of an Adult Literacy Program on the Next Generation: Evidence from Rural India, 2018.

Dr Alka Srivastava

The views expressed in the article are those of the author’s and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives.


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