International Literacy Day: If Women Can’t Read Or Write, How Will They Be Financially Independent In The Digital Age?
It’s been more than five months since my househelp, (Aunty, as I call her) stopped coming to work. It began on the day the Janata Curfew was announced, and we haven’t heard from her ever since. She is a reluctant communicator, so we assumed she had also returned to her village, hence the radio silence. But a few days ago, when my mother saw some of the other ladies return to their jobs in my building, she asked one of them about our Aunty. Turns out, she is home, but probably hasn’t called because she doesn’t know how to use a phone. And we don’t have her number either, since she keeps calling from different family members’ phones, and never wrote one down for us. Because she can’t. On International Literacy Day today, I want to talk about Aunty, and women like her on the other side of our country’s rising female literacy rate, who are unable to be financially independent and therefore, truly independent, because they cannot read or write properly.
Let’s begin with the silver lining first, because God knows we need that a lot these days. According to a report on ‘Household Social Consumption: Education in India’ which is a part of 75th National Sample Survey conducted between July 2017 and June 2018, the overall literacy rate of the country is some 77.7%. In urban areas, it goes as high as 87.7%, with the rural areas docking the national average with their 73.5%. But hey, no complaints there, considering around the time of our Independence, we were in the 15-20% range. So kudos, India. And also kudos to Kerala, the consistent topper state in this matter, with a 96.2% literacy rate.
The biggest gold star, though, comes for the rising female literacy rates in our country. According to the 2011 census, over 80% of the country’s female population aged 7-29 is literate.
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But now, it is time to look past the silver, delve deeper and address the grey elephant in the room. In terms of female literacy, we’re still a full 22 percentage points behind the global average rate. What’s more, despite the tremendous rise in the national average, the ratio of male-female literacy rate is still rather problematic. And it is something that even Kerala, with its gold-starred report card, cannot salvage.
In every single state, the male literacy rate is higher than the female literacy rate, the gap only widening in states that performed poorly overall. For example, in Kerala, the male literacy rate is 97.4% while the female literacy rate is 95.2%, a minor difference. However, in Andhra Pradesh, which has the lowest literacy rate (66.4%) in the country, the male literacy rate is at 73.4% while the female literacy rate is far behind, at 59.5%. In states like Rajasthan and Bihar too, the difference in the literacy rates by gender is at a staggering 25%+.
What might also surprise you, is that while India claims to be a much more progressive nation for women than, say, a Saudi Arabia, the gender disparity in literacy rates is still wider when compared to nations like Saudi Arabia, or even middle to low-income nations like Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, according to a World Bank Report.
Now y0u’d think, it’s fine, we’ll get there. At least our young women, who will be the future of our country, are literate and getting educated. Isn’t that awesome? Well, sure. But let me bring you back to the story I began with, of a middle-aged woman, working as a housemaid, who is illiterate and therefore, hugely dependent on her family members for every little thing. Imagine her plight when she has to do something as basic as use a phone to call her employer that she won’t make it for work. Or read signboards to travel somewhere, even when they are in her mother tongue. She is a woman handicapped, and completely stranded in a digital age, which requires her to at least know how to read a text or type a number. Now extend the same scenario to other women across economic, class, caste and age barriers, because that’s how wide the problem actually is.
When demonetisation struck in 2016, the big picture of women’s true plight was revealed. Housewives had stashed a mini fortune away from their husbands, and now that it was rendered useless, many of them did not know what to do with all those ‘savings’. Why? They didn’t know how to open a bank account, they didn’t know how to use a smartphone to register for e-wallets. Many knew all of that, but had never ventured out to take care of their finances because the men in the family did everything.
When we set these bare basic goals for our country’s education and literacy programmes, the world was much simpler. Women needed to be empowered, for which they had to be educated, for which they needed to learn how to read and write. But it was okay if she didn’t do any of the above things, because she could rely on her father, husband, son or male kin to help her lead her life. But now, as the world eagerly embraces technology and virtual learning in the wake of a pandemic, digital literacy has become indispensable. Everything, from banking to education to ordering groceries, to keeping in touch with your loved ones, will require that we open our smartphones or computers and let them do it for us. Amidst this new development, an abysmal female literacy rate could be the biggest detriment to female empowerment and women’s financial independence, which is directly tied to their self-worth.
While the young girls of India continue to get literate and educated, there needs to be sharp focus on raising the adult female literacy rates as well. They aren’t currently in the focus all that much since COVID-19 has derailed several existing adult literacy programmes. However, the emphasis on raising our female literacy rate, especially in states that report higher crimes against women and higher female foeticide rates, needs to be immediately laid to prepare women for the changing world.
Think of women empowerment as an essay, financial independence as the coherent sentences that make up the essay and education as the words that make up the sentences. But none of them is possible if you do not know how to read and write the alphabet. And that, is literacy.
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Sharp-tongued feminist. Proud nerd. Opinions with on-point pop-culture references about films, books, your toxic BF, the patriarchy, and the Oxford comma.