Two summers ago, I arrived in an isolated, indigenous village in the central highlands of Mexico. My job was to teach English. Every morning, they announced the start of my classes over an old, crackling PA system from the church tower at the center of town. Students of all ages filed into the church narthex, sitting in two rows of benches in front of an old chalkboard. I had never taught before, but I had just received my TESOL certificate (for teaching English) from the University of Maine. What’s more, most of the people in my classes were already bilingual, speaking both Spanish and Purepechan, the indigenous dialect, giving them a big advantage toward learning a third. I imagined that teaching the English language to them wouldn’t be that difficult.
It took me a full week of writing on the chalkboard — in Spanish and in English, making lists of new words and carefully researched phonetic spellings for Spanish-speakers — to realize that many of my students were illiterate. They could no more read my Spanish, or any of my letters at all, than I could suddenly begin holding conversations in Purepechan. No one told me; a few even pretended to take notes. I still cringe when I consider how much time I wasted on written lessons.
It blew my mind to imagine learning — especially language — without writing. Writing is so fundamental for me that it is almost impossible for me to imagine a solely oral education. After that I used the chalkboard only to draw pictures, and our lessons progressed — verbally.
A few weeks ago I asked Robert Warwick, the executive director of the Maryland International Rescue Committee, to outline some of challenges facing refugee resettlement in Baltimore. Included in his top three was the need for education for newly resettled women.
“There is a lot of illiteracy, and innumeracy, in some cases — individuals who never learned basic math and counting skills. Now they need those skills to survive, land a job and run households here in the U.S. Getting individuals to ESL [English as a Second Language] classes, when there is no educational or written language background, getting them to balance a checkbook when there isn’t a strong numbers background … these are some of the challenges facing recently resettled women refugees.”
As part of the Baltimore Resettlement Center’s many partnerships, Baltimore City Community College runs ESL classes every day in the center, helping new arrivals with their English as well as offering pre-employment classes.
Right now, women make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterate. But there is hope that’s about to change. Ann Richard, former vice president of government relations and advocacy for the IRC in Washington, D.C., believes the time is right to make empowering women through education a major priority. “Issues that never used to be considered ‘real’ issues to diplomats, ambassadors, U.N. workers … are now front and center,” she said at an International Women’s Day fundraiser three weeks ago.
Empowering women through education isn’t good for just women — it’s good for communities. Time and again we have seen that when women are given resources, be they business loans, supplies or, in this case, education, they tend to spread them out through their community. Women invest in kids and neighborhoods; they are peacemakers who, more often than not, increase political and economic stability. Richards is quick to point out that “if you teach a woman to read, she will teach her children.” Educated women and girls are less vulnerable to HIV infection, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation, are more likely to marry later, raise fewer children who, in turn, are more likely to go to school and contribute to family income. To put it simply, when women’s education goes up, conflict tends to go down, and quality of life goes up.
The numbers of uneducated women across the globe aren’t simply a casualty of priorities, slipping through the cracks. Education for women is actively fought against in some places. In Afghanistan, girls have had acid thrown in their faces for trying to go to school; in Pakistan, girls schools have been burned.
But even in places where educating girls is met with violence, communities continue to press forward in the fight for women’s education. It says a great deal when a 17-year-old girl who has just been disfigured for life — one whose face has been burned badly enough that her occasionally blurry vision makes it difficult for her to read — continues to go to school anyway, backed by her family and her community.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.”
When a Mexican nonprofit, Ayuda Mutua, proposed that I go to the rural highlands to teach English to the more isolated nationals, it wanted me to focus on conversational skills and numbers for the women. “The Purepechan women travel to cities to sell their wares. Many of the men have left the villages, and these women are supporting their communities alone,” I was told. “They need language and math skills for business.” When I got to the villages, I fell in love with the people there, the oral traditions and their ways of learning, often so different from my own. I also recognized, as they had, what important tools reading and writing could be for them.
As for many of the women refugees in the U.S., literacy and math will be among the most important skills they will need to help them survive. With the assistance of partnerships between organizations such as the IRC and community colleges such as BCCC, I hope the women will develop the skills they’ll need to make contri-butions in their communities, wherever they happen to be.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org