Is There a Gender Difference in Literacy Acquisition?
Literacy and education in developing countries present several issues, such as:
- Access to schools
- Availability of adequate instruction
- Cultural appropriateness of materials
But which major issues in literacy are different for indigenous peoples? More specifically, are the issues different or more challenging for indigenous women than for indigenous men?
To consider whether literacy and education is different for indigenous women, I reflected upon my own fieldwork in literacy among the Waodani people of Ecuador (19721984, 19921999). Several issues came to mind in an attempt to answer this question: Was literacy acquisition more difficult or different in some way for the Waodani women?
- Political Issues. There seemed to be no gender difference politically because of the egalitarian nature of the Waodani culture. Both men and women had the right to access any opportunity, which included literacy learning. Consequently, both men and women, through literacy acquisition, have equally gained certain advantages that they use in their interface with the dominant culture.
- Learning Issues. There was no conspicuous gender difference in the ability to learn. However, those women who, either by choice or by circumstance, did not acquire literacy skills have found themselves at a disadvantage in their changed, contemporary world.
- Practical Issues. In the matter of combining practical, daily life and literacy learning, there was a definite gender difference due to a womans family responsibilities. This was especially true for new mothers and those with small children. A nursing baby or a child who demands attention is very distracting during literacy learning. Sometimes a mother would bathe and nurse her child just before coming to class. Then, sound asleep and tucked securely in a baby sling on the back, there was less distraction. Mothers who recruited someone else to care for the child fared better in classes.
- Time Issues. Yes, a gender difference appeared here. If a man sacrificed hunting or fishing time to allow for class time, he could fall back on the woman’s food supply from the gardens. However, if a woman gave up daily chore time for literacy pursuits, most often it was other women who picked up the slack. If both the women and the men of the same household spent extensive time attending or teaching a class, most often it was the grandmothers who worked in the garden and took care of the children. Literacy learning had to be worth the burden it put on other family members. The heavy time constraints required for young women and girls to gain their education has ultimately pushed heavy responsibilities on to older female relatives.
The differences in time and practical issues are not surprising and would be expected for women of other ethnic groups as well. Additional gender-related issues become more complex and difficult to identify and articulate. While pondering what these might be, it is reassuring to know that most indigenous women do not even think about the differences. Instead, they pro-actively impact the lives of other women, girls…and boys…and…men. They are engaged in solutions affecting the positive direction of their communities and making a difference.
Submitted by Pat Kelley, SIL International Literacy Coordinator