An innovative scheme to help illiterate women learn to read and write has been launched in two regions of Eritrea.
The Food for Training programme offers 19.5 kg of basic foods each month to women, and some men, who attend two hours of literacy lessons each day. The food parcel - containing oil, cereals, salt and pulses - is intended to compensate the women for the time they spend in the classroom, hours which would otherwise be spent preparing food for their families.
The programme, which is being piloted during April and May in the Ansaba and Red Sea regions, is run by the National Union of Eritrean Women (NEUW) and the World Food Programme (WFP). The ministry of education has contributed 236 teachers as well as school classrooms in 75 towns and villages.
More than 5,000 women have signed up for the lessons so far. A WFP spokesman said the programme was proving especially popular among teenage girls, aged between 14 and 16, some of whom have never been to school.
Food for Training is part of an ongoing attempt by the government to change traditional attitudes, still dominant in many rural areas, that women should stay and work in the home, rather than seek an education, or a job. Approximately 80 percent of Eritrea’s population is thought to be illiterate and, according to recent figures, up to 20 percent fewer girls than boys attend school. In an attempt to redress the balance, the Eritrean government and WFP are also providing girls who attend primary school with 50 percent more food than boys.
A NEUW spokeswoman told IRIN that 30 years of war had changed Eritrean society and that many households were now headed by women. “Some women have been widowed, others are demobilised fighters who never married, others were deported from Ethiopia or have been living in refugee camps,” she pointed out. “They have had to learn to be self-sufficient so that they can feed their children.”
“Women need to know how to read and write to communicate and be aware of what is going on,” the spokeswoman added.
If the pilot programmes prove successful, organisers hope to extend Food for Training to other regions from September and eventually to enrol 50,000 women. There are also plans to offer food to women who attend vocational training courses, in which they are taught crafts, such as basket weaving, which might eventually help them to earn a living.