February 18, 2010

If you just look at the numbers, RS is a success story. Only three women withdrew from the process, and everyone reenrolled. Bu RS is the exception rather than the rule. Overall, about 30% of the women who began classes last June either didn’t finish or didn’t pass the final evaluation. CONALFA, the government illiteracy initiative that oversaw the evaluation and certification process, doesn’t have the resources to provide tutoring for students, so even women who miss the cutoff by just a few points are listed as retiradas.

Some communities had an especially high number of students who didn’t finish. In one town in the Zona Reyna, there were so many that the two facilitators suggested combining their remaining students, forming one group that would move onto the second year and another that would repeat the first. But P doesn’t have the funds for this plan, so instead we decided to offer one month of refuerzo so that the women would be able to continue.

Last Saturday, we squeezed into a van and headed out to S to visit each of the retiradas in their homes in an attempt to persuade them to reenroll. We split up: one of my coworkers went with N, our youngest facilitator, and I went, squelching and sliding in the mud, with M and C, the manager for all of P’s programs in the Zona Reyna who also, conveniently, speaks Q’eqchí.

At the first home we visited, the woman sat behind a sheet in her one-room house, her five children peeking out at us. “It’s hard for me,” she explained in Q’eqchí, as C translated. “And sometimes we don’t have corn or beans, and I have to go with my husband to the fields in the mountains.” After 20 minutes, she said she’d reconsider.

The second and third women we visited weren’t at home. The fourth family we visited runs a small store out of the front of their house, and the woman we were looking for was right behind the counter. But she told us we’d have to talk to her husband, and went off to call him. The man turned out to be an acquaintance of C’s from school who had worked both as a primary school teacher and as a facilitator for CONALFA. He led us to the back of their wood frame house, and sat us down on a bench. The woman brought us huge white tin mugs of coffee and then moved into the corner.

For the next 40 minutes, we proceeded to have a conversation about her, in front of her, but with someone else: her husband, the teacher and alfabetizador who, it became clear, was the reason she’d withdrawn.

“We have five children, she has too much work, she can’t leave them alone,” he repeated over and over, no matter what we said or how we said it. “But learning to read is work for your family as well,” we said. “But she’ll be able to help more in the store, she’ll be able to teach your children,” we said. C went so far as to subtly suggest that maybe her husband could help her with the children. I bit my tongue and managed not to deliver what would have surely been a feckless lecture on liberty and equality and sororité.

Finally, C turned to the woman, and asked her what she thought. She answered in Q’eqchi. Her husband was angry when she arrived home late from the meetings, delaying meals. “Better that you don’t continue,” he had told her. “I want her to continue,” he said when she was done, “but we have five children, she has too much work, she can’t leave them alone.”

These are the same reasons that almost every single woman who withdrew gave for her decision.

This is what Freire didn’t understand, what you can’t find in five chapters and 180 pages of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Just changing the content and methods of literacy programs to reflect reality isn’t enough to overcome it, especially where women are concerned. Unless you can find a way to help women negotiate their gendered responsibilities, providing childcare and convincing men that women have a right to learn, it doesn’t matter how carefully you select your generative themes.

Thankfully, there is at least one man in S who is not machista. At the last house we visited, the woman explained that she had stopped attending classes after she fell ill. But now she felt better, and was interested in trying again. Her husband briefly came in to meet us. “Oh yes,” he said. “I want her to continue. How can she sign up?”

M, one of the facilitators, facilitating


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