This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter G, for Gender Inequality. Learn more about the relationship between illiteracy and gender inequality when you click on the letter G.
Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women, more than half of them residing in South Asian countries. And Maya Tamang, a 37-year-old farmer from rural Nepal, isn’t afraid to admit that she’s one of them. “When I was growing up, I had a lot of responsibilities [on] my family’s farm, so I went to school only for two years,” she says.
Today, Tamang still has similar responsibilities. She cuts and gathers grass to feed her family’s buffaloes. But unlike her mother, she does this type of farmwork alone, sending her two daughters, ages 9 and 11, off to school.
“Times have changed,” she says. When Maya was a child, it was her responsibility to venture into far-flung hills and fields to find edible grass for buffaloes. But she doesn’t want her daughters to do the same. Instead, Maya aspires to see them attend university one day in Kathmandu, the capital city.
In this mountainous Himalayan country with limited space for cultivation, agriculture is a very laborious activity. Image by Didem Tali.
Nepal is primarily an agricultural country, with more than half its people depending on that sector for their livelihood. Yet the Himalayan mountain range features prominently in its landscape, so space for cultivation is limited, and any agricultural work is incredibly labor-intensive.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that over 750 million people in South Asia lead “agricultural” lives. For many, that means a life of poverty. Of the 1.2 billion people worldwide subsisting in absolute poverty, over 43 percent reside in South Asia—the vast majority in rural areas.
Unsurprisingly, at 59 percent, female illiteracy in such areas is unusually high. Yet even in highly advanced nations like the United States, where 81 percent of the population is urban, gender equity in education hasn’t been established, according to the Department of Education. No matter where they call home, girls encounter obstacles to their educational lives, often associated with deep-seated biases about which gender is best suited for certain roles.
That’s certainly true in Nepal, where it has traditionally been the job of women and girls to feed the buffaloes, which requires long hours wandering through steep and often treacherous hills to seek out edible grass. Buffaloes are usually any given family’s biggest financial assets, and feeding these beasts is no minor task. A mature buffalo can weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds, and its diet requires dozens of pounds of suitable grass every day. In the dry season, girls are frequently compelled to drop out of school to keep up with the animals’ demanding diets.
“In Nepal, one of the biggest agricultural problems is that the earth becomes monocultural when the same crops are grown over and over again,” says Eva Wieners, a consultant for Kaule Environment, a sustainable agriculture organization that has been operating in rural Nepal for a number of years, formalizing its activities in 2010. Working with communities like Maya’s in the Nuwakot District, Kaule Environment has collaborated with farmers to reinvigorate the Nepalese agricultural economy.
Due to the modern economic demands of agriculture in Nepal, many farmers haven’t been able to rotate their crops, accelerating the risk of soil erosion and reducing its quality over time. Sustainable agroforestry techniques—which entail growing fruit trees, kiwi plants, and grasses for buffaloes—can put an end to that cycle. Agroforestry is a traditional method for Himalayan farmers, which has helped it gain momentum as an agricultural movement in Nepal. In communities like Maya’s, Kaule Environment and other NGOs are helping farming families use agroforestry to make more profit while working less.
A woman cuts and gathers grass to feed her family's buffaloes. Image by Didem Tali.
“Every sustainable system that produces revenue is a system that boosts girls’ education,” says Wieners. “With agroforestry, families also make more profit and have more disposable income to support their daughters’ educations … I’ve seen a lot of girls in my community who stayed in school and eventually went to universities when farming becomes a less laborious and a more profitable activity.”
In the Himalayan nation, the literacy rate for women and girls between the ages of 15 and 24 accelerated from 15 percent in 1981 to more than 77 percent by 2011. Wieners attributes that success to efforts like Kaule Environment’s; every sustainably well-fed buffalo has had a positive impact in the ongoing improvement of those rates.
And the impact isn’t limited to young girls. Studies conducted globally indicate that illiteracy is one of the easiest ways to slow down agricultural productivity, as it traps farming communities in an intergenerational cycle of poverty. According to a recent UNESCO report, literacy is the most straightforward solution for breaking this poverty trap, as educated people are better prepared to facilitate sustainable development in rural areas.
That seems to be the case for Maya, whose daughters are now helping her learn how to read and write. When a single person like her joins the rank of literate women in Nepal, it may seem like she’s a mere blip on an upward trending line. But every family like Maya’s is a crucial part of a story that’s being told all over the world: To increase literacy among girls and women everywhere, we must truly examine what is holding them back, and make strategic moves to change the way things work on both a cultural and economic level before efforts to improve literacy rates can truly take hold.
Rural Nepalese girls on their way to the school. Image by Didem Tali.
Studies show that for every extra year of secondary schooling, girls’ future wages increase by 10 to 20 percent. In South Asian countries, the gains may be even larger—that UNESCO report revealed that Pakistani women with a high level of literacy earned 95 percent more than women with no literacy skills.
South Asia isn’t unique when it comes to girls lagging behind in education. For Maya, whose day-to-day life is filled with a lot less strife and much more potential, being a statistical blip is the best thing that’s ever happened to her.
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