In The Gambia, illiteracy among women is very high. This means that they have to depend highly on information given to them which is, at most times, incomplete. As a result, ill health is usually attributed to superstiti on, witchcraft, sorcery and bad omen. Without a scientific based knowledge, it is difficult for women to conceptualize the fragmented messages that come to them, for instance the health consequences associated with FGMC and STIs, as well as gynecological problems relating to early childhood marriages, etc. This largely contributes to their high level of ignorance, which subsequently impedes all efforts by themselves and others to improve their socio-economic status.
BAFROW's Functional Literacy Program was introduced as part of the integrated interventions for community empowerment using the REFLECT (Regenerated Freirean literacy through empowering community techniques) Approach in all the classes. This approach involves processes through which communities are able to discuss, identify analyze and understand their problems and needs, and propose possible solutions and actions towards solving them, with the ability to articulate their issues through writing and to further empower themselves through reading. The approach is based on the following key realities.
- Empowerment or human liberation is an outcome of education
- Education is always political, never neutral, as it serves to bring about change or maintains the status quo
- All people have the capacity to solve problems. Education is a search for solutions to challenges
- Action is more effective when people stop to reflect upon a problem, analyze it and seek to identify what needs to be done to bring about change. True learning occurs as an ongoing spiral of reflection, planning and action ("praxis") which in turn leads to further reflection (of the new situation), planning and action
- Knowledge does not emerge from experts. The emphasis is on the collective knowledge that emerges from a group sharing experiences and understanding the social influences that affect individual lives.
BAFROW's literacy program ensures that women know how to read and write in their local languages, and receive a wild range of health education to guide them in making informed decisions on their health in general and their reproductive health in particular. To
further strengthen their knowledge, they are provided free-of-charge Simple Readers on relevant reproductive health and rights issues, community and national development, and environmental issues, all of which are translated into Mandinka, a language spoken and understood by the majority of the rural population, and in which the literacy students can read and write. They are taught how to do simple arithmetic and calculations to assist them in keeping record of their businesses. They are provided with basic training in communication, advocacy and lobbying skills, as well as in how to carry out community mobilization and awareness raising activities.
BAFROW organizes special training for women who wish to advance their education in specific areas. For instance, in the area of health, BAFROW has trained groups of rural women as community health mobilizers for health promotion and protection. They are trained to identify health problems that are preventable in their communities, determine the causes of these problems, analyses them and decide on how to prevent the occurrence and recurrence of such problems. The issues, the problems, and their solutions are written down by the women themselves and given to BAFROW to published in its Simple Readers series which form part of the training material for subsequent literacy students. The books are reader friendly, explicit and pictorial. The Simple Readers are in stages of advancement; they are published as the problems are documented. Once the learner completes a thematic Reader, she is given a copy to take with her and continues to read in order to sustain her knowledge and build up on her skills.
Our first set of trainers graduated with such high competency in reading and writing that they were able to write and read their own speeches during their graduation ceremony. With these skills, they are able to design and present health issues to their communities in their respective mother tongues. The health mobilizers and promoters have themselves participated in the establishment of a system of monitoring and referral of patients and clients to the nearest health facility within their communities. They participated inthe design of the forms for monitoring and decided on what information the forms should contain. They are able to administer these forms and fill them accordingly using their reading and writing skills, and their knowledge on health, especially on sexual and reproductive health matters.
Some of them are currently attached to the BAFROW Well Woman's Family Clinics at Ndemban, Berefet, Mandinaba, and Bondali where they are applying their skills and knowledge gained to improve the quality of their health and that of their communities, working as either community health promoters and mobilizers, and nurse assistants/attendants.
Since the program started the literacy rate among women had increased, for instance in Mandinaba from 10% among women aged 18 and above in 1999 to 60% in 2006 and 70% in 2010. The communities in general and women in particular realize and appreciate the benefits of "women's education", as a result, they are willing to send their girls to school and support them to complete their education. They are also contributing to the operation of the functional literacy program.
The value and importance of this program is manifested in varying degrees of satisfaction, contentment and results-oriented community actions. The story below of Ya Fatou Kujabi, a graduate of BAFROW's first functional literacy class at Mandinaba sums it all up