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Reminiscences of an Activist: The Lessons Learnt in Implementing a Functional Literacy Project for Women in Sri Lanka

By Shanthi  Sachithanandam

The Context

In June 1990, the second Eelam war[1] had begun in the North-East of Sri Lanka. This coincided with my appointment as the North-East Program Coordinator for Community Aid Abroad (CAA), also known as the Australian OXFAM.  CAA was a comparatively small donor NGO prioritizing support for community initiatives and women’s empowerment amongst the poorest of the poor. Before I started my work, we had to select the geographical areas and the issues to be addressed, based on the mandate of CAA. First of all, the emphasis put by CAA on the actions of mobilizing and awareness raising meant that the projects we supported had to be monitored closely to ensure follow up activities. Secondly, their primary target group being the poorest of the poor meant that we had to select the most marginalized community in the region to work with.

Already, all access to the Northern Province was closed as a result of renewed hostilities. On account of being a more mixed ethnic community of Tamils and Muslims, the East had maintained road access. Since East offered more access for monitoring visits, we focused our attention on the Eastern province. Of the three districts in the province, Batticaloa district had been assessed as one of the worst performing districts in terms of physical quality of life index (PQLI) even before the advent of the war.  After the war began in the mid 1980s, it was also the worst hit, affected by both the war between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil militants (specifically LTTE) and inter-ethnic violence between the Tamil and Muslim communities. It also bore the brunt of the war between the LTTE and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).  In order to counter the growing LTTE strength, the IPKF covertly supported a forced recruitment drive of young males to a local army, comprised mostly of youth abducted from this district. These recruits were later massacred by the advancing LTTE forces when the IPKF left the shores of Sri Lanka. As a result of this complex web of national and regional violent politics, this district had suffered multiple and total displacements of entire villages, and indiscriminate killings of male family members of the Tamil community by the armed forces as well as the LTTE. Families were left destitute without their breadwinners and young widows proliferated in each locality. We chose the most affected communities in this district for our interventions which started off as immediate basic relief assistance for resettling families.

Observations on the Relief Project

An assistance package was offered to about 2000 families who were trudging back from the interiors of the jungle where they were displaced, to their own villages and homesteads. This included thatched roofing cadjans, household utensils, cultivation implements, and dry food rations. It was hoped that with this assistance they would be able to mend their dwellings and start their livelihood activities. I facilitated the establishment of institutions for the poor run by themselves and involved in long term development issues. It was when the relief items were being distributed that I noticed that most women who received assistance were putting their finger prints in place of their signature. This came as a shock to me as we Sri Lankans have been priding ourselves on our high literacy rates of above 86%. A quick survey of the beneficiary community indicated that at least 40% of the women did not know to read and write.  Most others, although conversant with writing their names, were not familiar with reading newspapers or writing letters.

The reasons for the prevalence of illiteracy amongst women were many, most of which were cultural in nature. It is mandatory for all children to attend school until the age of sixteen under the Sri Lankan laws, and the state provides free education for all. Even so, girls are often withdrawn from school either to look after their siblings while the parents are out working, or when they attain puberty. Very often they are also married off in their mid-teens, especially amongst the poor classes and the Muslim community.  This is when their learning processes also come to a halt due to family responsibilities. Since women don’t involve themselves in attending to official business in the public realm which belongs to the male domain, they have few opportunities to apply their reading or writing skills. And, as years roll by they forget what they learnt at school. During our initial discussions to explore their needs, many problems related to their literacy skills surfaced.

If they have to visit a place, they cannot travel alone as they are unable to read the bus boards.  They have to arrange for a person who can read to accompany them. But this necessarily entailed paying the companion’s bus fare and meeting other expenses. This was a significant portion of their daily budget. Obtaining government compensation and other grants was another hurdle. The government was implementing a scheme whereby different compensations were paid depending on whether a bread winner of the family is maimed or killed. It also provided for resettlement and livelihood allowances. However, processing the required papers to qualify for this assistance was a Herculean task for the women.   They often enlisted the help of clerks at the relevant government offices who demanded a share of the monies received. The other area of concern was being communicable after leaving the shores of Sri Lanka as immigrant labor to the Middle East.  Poverty and under development were driving the women to seek employment as house maids in the Gulf. Their inability to communicate with their families increased their vulnerabilities in the foreign countries. That was not all. They did not know how to use banking or postal facilities. Realizing the acute need for literacy  skills, I began to design an appropriate functional literacy program.

The Functional Literacy Project

I first approached the non-formal education unit of the Department of Education[2] in Batticaloa district which was entrusted with all adult education matters, to help us with this design. This unit readily shared its syllabus which focused on helping an adult learn through identification of words rather than letters of the alphabet.  With their help, we trained village animators in delivering this syllabus to the women. Unfortunately, an assessment carried out after six months indicated that this method had failed. It was seen that the attendance of the women at the weekly classes had dwindled from ten and fifteen to twos and ones. In fact, when the animators entered the villages women were seen hurriedly walking away from them or hiding themselves inside their huts. It was obvious that we had to re-evaluate our approach.

The evaluation also provided us with valuable information. We learnt that women preferred discussions rather than ‘learning’; they were more involved when the discussions touched on their daily chores or vocation rather than common issues; and that their interests were captured whenever there were photographs and big pictures than when there were only letters and words.  I set out to combine all these aspects into formulating a functional literacy syllabus for them.  In addition, I also wished to integrate a process of gender awareness and political education within this.

Accordingly, I divided the lessons into the (social) spheres of activities of the women—home, the home garden, the location of economic activities, the community, Public Utilities, and the political space. Each lesson was encapsulated in one big picture which was commissioned to a professional artist. We worked out every single detail of the picture on the basis of the issues we wanted to highlight. 18 such modules were painstakingly developed; each module to be delivered in four classes within one month. The objective was to make an illiterate woman  be able to write a simple letter, read news items in the daily newspapers, fill up bank forms,  and organize her economic activities and family budget; all within 18 months of attending the literacy classes. In addition to these practical skills, I hoped to raise the awareness of the women so as to enable them to identify critical issues and become advocates for those issues. Finally, a comprehensive training was provided to selected animators to handle this syllabus. Allowing participants to express themselves and reflect on their life was their main brief.

The Modules

The first module was home and home environs. In order to deliver this we used a picture of the interior of a small two roomed hut with utensils, mats, and other stuff seen in a typical home in the area. The lesson was initiated with the women looking carefully at the picture and identifying all the objects in it. They were encouraged to talk about their own home and about the things they owned and/or used. They were asked to talk about things that were used by the menfolk of the family such as mammoty and axe and the women folk such as pots and pans. They were invited to reflect on the fact that what they used were of consumer value, and what the men owned possessed a capital value, and was in fact considered an investment. However, it was pointed out that the cooking utensils they used to feed the family could become a capital for their economic venture if they start supplying cooked food to an outside market. In comparing the investment value of things we encouraged them to think of the comparative status of men and women in the family. The underlying principle was that they could change this status if they convert the consumer value of their things into capital value.

After the initial discussion, the objects in the picture were to be named one by one and written out on a board. Once the women familiarized themselves with the words, they were written on a card and given to them to be taken home. They were asked to put each card against the corresponding object in the house so that every time they looked at the object they were able to read the word too.  I had adopted this methodology from the previous syllabus provided by the Department of Education.

The next module was about their home garden. The picture used was a vegetable garden with all the garden implements and inputs. As usual the women were first given time to observe the picture and to discuss cultivation in general and their own gardening in particular. When we carried out this lesson, there were some women in the group who were good at cultivation and therefore had a lot of experiences to share with others. They were able to motivate the others to grow their own home gardens. They also discussed seasons for vegetable cultivation and the market value of the vegetables.  The animators on their part shared information on nutrition. Finally, as part of the curriculum all the key words used in the lesson were written out. Here too they were given words written on cards to be taken home to be put alongside the corresponding object in the garden.

The third module was on their economic activities. The picture used depicted one activity commonly pursued by women of the area. We had prepared several such pictures each depicting an activity so that the animator could use the most relevant one for the particular group. Accordingly one picture described making of rice flakes; another of making rice flour. Another one showed cooking and selling meals from home. Each of these pictures depicted women engaged in that particular activity as well as the implements used for it. In the field it was observed that this was the most interesting aspect of the lesson for the women. They shyly giggled at the picture in front of them and got deeply involved in discussing the aspects of the particular economic activity. As part of this lesson they were guided to make a budget plan for their venture, costing for all the inputs, including their labor. Before this they had no idea about costing for their efforts.   They were taught the rudiments of arithmetic wherever needed. They were able to discuss the role of middlemen and their profit margins. Finally, as usual, they learnt all the key words that they had discussed during the preceding lessons.

The other lessons also continued in a similar vein. They were taught to read place names and to write letters. They practiced filling up bank forms and having a conversation over the phone. We used a picture of a funeral house to discuss social relationships and the importance of community networks. The Batticaloa region has socially ingrained traditions of mutual community support manifested particularly in rituals and functions around a funeral, which is when a family needs maximum assistance. In this cultural context, a funeral house assumed deeper meanings. Observing the picture of a funeral in their village, the women were asked to reflect on all the important relatives who officiate at such functions and their significance in the lives of the women.  They were asked to compare their extended family ties before and after the war. When they realized how much they have lost out on community networks due to death and displacement, they were able to arrive at the conclusion that the networks of women’s groups were actually a good substitute for what was lost. In order to raise awareness on social issues, a picture of a scene of domestic violence was used. While learning all the associated words of domestic violence, they were also able to discuss its impact.

Special mention must be made of the political awareness part of the syllabus. The picture that we used was that of an Army checkpoint, a very common sight in these areas. It depicted men and women standing in a queue to be checked by army personnel. While discussing this picture the women were encouraged to reflect on the concepts of “they” and “us,” the identities in conflict here. Who was checking and who were being checked?  In discussing the why of this phenomenon some aspects of the history of the ethnic conflict were provided to them. It is important to note that the words they learnt through these lessons were all locally used terminologies. Sometimes English words such as “checkpoint” were used in Tamil as those were of common parlance.

In between the formal lessons, we also organized “literacy games” to make it a fun filled learning process. As most lessons were conducted under the shade of a tree, we used portable recorders to play songs for a game similar to musical chairs. Here of course, instead of finding and sitting on a chair, one has to find a word or letter that is called out by the animator. The women have to run round the collection of words and letters written on cards. The woman who picks up the card with the letter or word that is called promptly after the music stops, collects the points. For a group of women who were learning sewing, we gave the exercise of embroidering each letter of the alphabet on their cloths.  They loved it and competed with each other in completing the task.

Impact of the Literacy Project

This project was extremely successful in achieving its targets. Participation remained high, and except a handful all others graduated with flying colors. Some of the participants subsequently went to the Middle East and wrote letters to their fellow group members. In every letter gratitude poured in for the skills they had received under this literacy project which was now of immense value to them.  As for the impact of the awareness raising that this project did on the issues of gender and livelihoods, we observed significant behavior changes although no formal evaluation was carried out to capture this. Despite all these achievements, we had to wind up this project by the year 1996.

One challenge we faced was the sustainability of this effort. It was labor intensive, had to be carried out over a long period of time, and outreach was slow. We found it difficult to continuously mobilize required resources for it. But the real challenge was obtaining the human resource needed to run the project. The nature of this project was such that it demanded personnel who were at least college graduates who understood the concepts of each module and were thus better equipped to disseminate the message through facilitated discussions. Each group discussion is bound to take a different turn depending on the background, experiences, and attitudes of the participants. The facilitator had to be able to gently steer the conversation towards the objectives of the particular lesson. Unfortunately, we could not match this demand with the supply. Once graduated, young people looked for what they considered secure and ‘respectable’ jobs that preferably did not involve much field work. They, especially, disliked working in very poor villages. This attitude translated into seeking jobs primarily in the government sector. So, we had to end up training animators who had barely passed their ordinary level examinations and whose capacities were inadequate to carry this project.  As a result, in many cases, the modules were delivered without achieving the full impact of the associated awareness they were supposed to create.

The third challenge was the dependency of the animators on the project staff for leadership, to constantly motivate them and “keep them on track”. Anticipating this requirement, the project should have identified local leadership that is able to lead this process and infused it with a vision for the program. I was too engrossed with the application of the methodology that I failed to mobilize the leadership to carry this on. When I switched jobs from OXFAM to another Agency in 199 and lost contact with the community for a brief period, this project also snuffed itself out.


During the early 1990s, the donor approach to working with conflict affected communities was still that of compartmentalizing relief as different from rehabilitation and as different from development. On the contrary, our project saw the seeds of development within the relief projects themselves. It took another five years for the donor community to arrive at the concept of the “relief, rehabilitation, development continuum.” Likewise, literacy programs were a rarity in Sri Lanka. The maximum an average project would go was to teach beneficiaries to write their names.   In this context, together with the field staff I was able to invent a locally appropriate pedagogical tradition that provided space for the analysis of social relations of hierarchy and exploitation—a tradition that possessed the possibilities of creating aware and informed individuals who would be able to mobilize to challenge the status quo.

The intensity of the civil war in Sri Lanka for thirty years has exacerbated the problems faced by the education system. There has been a steep increase in the school drop-out rates of children due to poverty, especially those coming from women headed families. Even though catch-up classes are being organized by the government for these children, they have not been adequate to address the issues that had led to the child dropping out of school in the first place. Very soon we are going to be in need of a comprehensive adult literacy program, and this functional literacy curriculum will surely be of use then.

[Shanthi Anusha Sachithanandam has been involved in working on issues related to gender and development since the late 1980s. Her experiences range from working for international non-government development agencies (such as Australian OXFAM, Christian Aid UK), advising donors on policy and  program design guidelines (such as UNDP, World Bank, AusAID, Netherlands),  and working at the grass roots supporting institutions that implement community development projects, to,  participating in the advocacy processes connected to the Committee for Sustainable Development (CSD) at the United Nations in New York.

She is the founder member, former Chairperson, and presently CEO of Viluthu, Centre for Human Resource Development. Viluthu is a non-governmental organization that advocates for good governance through strengthening of government and non-government institutions and the Media. An Architect by training, she has written and edited  6 publications and presented 14 research papers both in Tamil and English.  Carnatic (Indian classical) music is her hobby. She can be reached at]

[1] This was the period when Tamil separatist militants were fighting the Sri Lankan government forces in order to establish a State of Tamil Eelam. In the North and East of Sri Lanka where majority population were Tamil speaking  the 30 year period of this war is roughly divided in to four segments called Eelam war 1-4.

[2] This Department is under the central Ministry of Education

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