International Literacy Day

As I sit down to write this blog on literacy I am suddenly disturb by the obvious inequalities that this piece of writing will showcase. My thoughts set to words, are written so that they may be read by an audience of those fortunate enough to be able to read them. My thoughts set to words, unfortunately exclude a large audience around the world, a number of whom I work with. This audience who cannot read nor write are deprived of a medium that most of us take for granted. Literacy for many is normalized and we forget the awesome power it enables us to have. I often take this ability for granted  yet being afforded a position to work in Guatemala on educational projects helps to remind me that reading and writing is a gift that should be, but is not, possessed by all.  According to UNICEF’s country evaluation for 2005-2008, over 25% of the Guatemalan adult population is illiterate, which to give a Canadian perspective is almost 25 times the rate in Canada.

During my time as Curriculum Development Officer with the local non-profit, Asociacion de Mujeres Ixchel, we have been trying to provide free community literacy classes for all those interested in learning to read and write in Spanish. From this work, I have had the honour of speaking with women who were open enough to share their own histories of learning to live without formal education.  Many stories had similar beginnings; fathers who did not want their daughters to attend school, household obligations, schools that were too far and too costly to be sent to.  And most have similar endings; embarrassment, marginalization, limitation, isolation and a desire to learn. These women have told me of their dual struggle with language barriers and illiteracy. They live in a country where their first language spoken, K’iche, limits their communication, in an officially Spanish speaking country. Normal routines like going into town, taking a bus, buying produce or asking directions are onerous and many feel dependant and avoid venturing off on their own.  Even familial interactions like signing school forms or helping their children with their homework can be debasing and discouraging. From my work here I have learned the base line struggles that illiterate women face daily.

Learning these individual stories helps to give a face to illiteracy and gives us pause to reflect on our own educational fortunes. Yet the more insidious face to illiteracy goes beyond the individual. It is a structural story, which impedes national development, delays women’s emancipation from oppression, impedes the inclusion of minoritized groups and leaves people debilitated, unable to improve their own or their families’ quality of life.  I see daily how deeply illiteracy divides ethnicities, sexes and the rich from the poor in Guatemala. However, I also see the potential that literacy programs can have and the vast opportunities that await so many people who are eager to learn to read and write.

With that said, my experience in trying to harness this potential has been immensely difficult. I have had the challenge of trying to implement an open literacy program within the different communities that Asociacion de Mujeres Ixchel works with. This has been an eye opening personal and professional lesson that has been both bittersweet. Education is as complex as it is important and although the desire exists amongst the women and I to get this program up and running, everyday realities and logistical and financial conditions contribute to stalling our efforts.  Finding the right time and space for our lessons has been trying because of the women’s burdensome workload inside and outside the home and due to a lack of communal settings for our classes. Distance and climate are issues as well. It takes over two hours to get to one of our communities and when it’s raining and the roads are washing out the idea of taking a pickup on unpaved roads up the side of a cliff becomes a deterrent.  And in terms of teaching and learning; basic literacy can be very difficult task for adult in school for the first time students and for teachers lacking in resources. Yet, when frustrated with the progress I tell myself to pick up a pen, use my left hand (I’m a righty), and try to write my name. This is a quick reminder that the path to literacy will be long and demanding and as such requires time, sacrifice, hard work, persistence and a little faith. Moreover, in order for goal of literacy to be attained there must be a concentrated effort that seeks to unite forces from the micro-community based level to the macro-institutional level.

The concept of Education for All is easily touted but for this universal goal to be attained it must be reworked so that institutions and individual can better interconnect, collaborate and support one another.  My program through CIDA and YCI is an example of how larger institutions are connecting with individuals locally. My hope now is that at the end of this internship I can say I collaborated in making the concept of Education for All a reality, which will allow this partnership to continue for time to come.

-Julia Rao, IYIP Intern, Guatemala 2011

YCI’s International Youth Internship Program (IYIP) placements are funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Our IYIP interns spend 7-9 months working with YCI’s partner organizations in Latin American, South America and Africa. The application process to become an IYIP intern is highly competitive. Applications for our 2012 internship positions will open in early November.

For more IYIP blogs, check out our IYIP section.

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