Nesma and a group of fellow women farm workers sit out in the midday sun after a morning of harvesting spinach leaves from plush green fields in Fayyoum governorate in Lower Egypt, 80kms south of Cairo.
Living in one-room mud houses with their husbands and children, they manage to eke out a living on between $0.80 and $1.60 a day each.
None of the women in the group knows how to read, nor do they express much desire to learn. For them, there is no choice but to passively accept their circumstances and little point in trying to change their lives.
"Life goes on, and this is my lot," said Nesma, in her mid 40s. "Even if I were to learn how to read, would it make a difference? And, even so, do you think my husband would let me get a job in town, away from him?"
She, like many rural women, takes chronic poverty and gender-related disadvantages for granted. "Reading doesn’t make a woman socially acceptable or useful," Nesma said. "Here, in the villages, we women grow up to marry and have children. That is our role in life. Anything else is a luxury."
According to the 2005 Human Development Report (HDR) for Egypt, issued jointly by the UNDP and the Ministry of Planning and Development, 35 percent of the population cannot read or write, putting Egypt among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of illiteracy. The figure is worse for Egypt’s female population, with 45 percent of girls and women over the age of 15 years-old being illiterate.
Studies repeatedly note the considerable gender gap, which is in turn exacerbated by regional and urban-rural gaps. Rural girls and women are, without exception, the worst hit.
While the report indicates marginal improvements over the past decade, it also stresses: "There remains a gender gap in favour of males." Cultural constraints, added to additional costs of education and the fact that a child attending school will be unable to assist in household responsibilities, contribute to this gap.
For rural women, the problem is doubly difficult to get around. According to the HDR, a whopping 85 percent of female rural household heads are illiterate.
A general lack of resources, added to a culture in which rural women's roles are limited to the domestic sphere and farm work, seriously hampers their access to education. While male employment has decreased over recent years, opening up more opportunities for women in the national labour force, rural women still rarely pursue careers as such.
In the rural areas, early marriages also contribute to female illiteracy. "Very often, a family will take their daughter out of school aged 13 or 14," said Nihad Abul-Qumsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. "And by the time she's grown up, she'll have forgotten how to read and write properly."
For other women, trouble starts at birth. Parents, particularly in impoverished rural areas, are often loath to register their daughters with the authorities, simply because the process is often long and difficult. Many parents feel that girls – who aren’t seen as potential breadwinners – are simply not worth the trouble. "As a result, many girls grow up without being issued birth certificates or identity cards," Abul-Qumsan said.
Technically, these girls and women do not exist. They are therefore not only unable to attend school, but it also becomes impossible for them to access public health services and other government subsidies or apply for regular work.
"These women can neither read nor work nor get treatment when they're ill," Abul-Qumsan said. "They're poor and marginalised, and their status as illiterates without legal documentation more often than not means they will stay that way."
Illiteracy and poverty
In Egypt, illiteracy not only constitutes a cause for poverty, it also acts as a disincentive for affected persons to adequately address their situation. An illiterate person is far less likely to be able to improve his or her lot, say experts, than someone who can read and write.
"If someone can't read or write," said Abul-Qumsan, "chances are he or she will not be able to address his or her problems efficiently or improve his or her financial circumstances."
For three decades, the Egyptian government has worked to improve literacy rates. Programmes have been devised recently specifically targeting illiterate women and working to improve school enrolment among girls.
The government-run National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, for instance, runs its own literacy programmes and sponsors a number of local NGOs which run their own workshops and courses. Among them is the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), which runs literacy classes for women in marginalised areas of Cairo and in three rural governorates in the Delta, along with programmes devoted to teaching crafts and rights awareness.
"In addition to running literacy courses," said Nashwa Salah, head of ADEW's illiteracy eradication programme, "it's important to give girls and women incentives to attend."
Increasingly, NGOs running literacy programmes are working to raise awareness of the immediate advantages of literacy, which range from better employment opportunities to greater rights awareness. "It's for this reason that we provide practical assistance, such as help in dealing with government agencies," Salah stressed. "We also run leisure programmes that target girls aged between 11 and 20, so that they feel greater motivation to attend."
Long road ahead
However, both civil society and the government still have a long way to go before they can expect to see tangible results. Critics say the problem of female illiteracy is too deeply entrenched for a relatively small number of programmes to handle. "Unfortunately, many of the programmes and laws in place are inefficient, despite their diversity," Abul-Qumsan said.
Although primary schooling is free and legally compulsory for both sexes, for example, punishments for parents taking their children out of school remain negligible. "Offending parents are merely charged a fine of $1.60," Abul-Qumsan said.
In addition, there are few programmes working to educate rural women in particular. The countryside, by virtue of being far away from urban centres, tends to receive the least attention in terms of social assistance programmes. "As is the case with every other aspect of their lives," Abul-Qumsan pointed out, "rural women suffer the most."
"The government must do more to raise the profile of rural women," Abul-Qumsan added. "Currently, illiteracy rates – along with all the economic and rights-based problems that go hand in hand with it – remain unacceptable."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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