Empowering illiterate women

by Tiny Malatji

Visitor Asks: Why is everything about the youth? What about those women that are encouraged to study further, if after that we are not going to give them chance? Because when I am listening I just hear about youth or work experience. Where must they go and get experience?

Editors Respond: Your first question is a very important one. I see you are writing from South Africa, but sometimes I feel the same way here in the United States.

Of course there are some important reasons to focus on youth. They do not resist change quite as much as we older folk. They have energy and enthusiasm. If the energy is misguided, they are the trouble-makers. So we are correct to have a lot of youth activities to channel their lively minds and bodies productively.

Also in Africa and some other places across the world, youth make up a very significant proportion of the population.

But as you are suggesting, adults also are capable of growth and change. It is so encouraging to see the education and economic progress of women becoming more of a priority around the world. But if education is seen as the key to economic development, you are correct in thinking that a society must create pathways for newly educated adults to contribute to the economy.

I can't presume to tell you exactly how to solve this problem. Students graduating from universities in the U.S. also face the problem of lack of the work experience that is required for many jobs. For many groups that need extra help toward empowerment, we find that the solution is becoming an owner of a very small business. That is just one suggestion for helping women gain experience.

But here are some conversations that need to happen to lead toward more economic empowerment for once illiterate women:

1. What do the women themselves think? How can their interests and life experiences plus their new level of literacy contribute to a more economically sustainable future for their families and their regions?

2. Where do the men who are community leaders think that women can or should contribute? If the answer to this question is significantly different from the answer to question 1, it is important to set up some dialogue sessions to reach greater mutual understanding. We do not want the men to begin actively (or more actively) opposing a greater economic development role for women.

3. How can traditional roles for women in your society be enhanced and made more economically productive? To the extent that individual women enjoy working with children, cooking, growing food, and making jewelry or clothing, the community should make an effort to help those women figure out and develop a market for the products of this work.

Of course, in some corners of the world, the women are the warriors, so please understand we are just using these as examples.

In Africa the market (here I mean a system connecting traders or buyers with sellers, not a place) might consist of trading with neighboring villages at first. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, women should take full advantage of advice and assistance from state and local governments and from universities to figure out how to turn traditional strengths into new economic possibilities.

For long-term success in helping women, it is best to provide a wide variety of choices and projects. Women are often especially resourceful about organizing people into cooperative working groups. That skill is very valuable in economic development. But some women will want to take on work traditionally assigned to or reserved for men. When that happens, it is wise to expect some men will try to hold on to all their power. Women will need to help each other, and to respect one another's choices.

So while it is important not to neglect the youth, it is also vital to develop new opportunities for women to contribute to economic progress. We agree that we should support adult women as they take on new projects and roles as they become educated.

We also agree that over-emphasizing youth programs means that we really are saying that adults cannot learn, change, and grow.

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