When Rural Women Learn to Read and Write

Institut Perempuan
Posted January 25, 2015 from Indonesia

A Documentation of Rural Women Organizing process in West Java, INDONESIA

INSTITUT PEREMPUAN (Women’s Institute)

There is some advice that it’s never old for someone to study. The obstacle to study does not come from us, but it is caused by environment and that injustice due to limited access of good education for marginal people. This happened to rural women at Kanci Kulon village, Astanajapura district, Cirebon regency.

Literacy is gate to knowledge and to women empowerment. However, in this modern era, there still an amount of Indonesian people, especially rural women who are not able to read and write.

At Block “KP”, Kanci Kulon Village, there are many 35-or-more-year-old women who are illiterate. However, from several women that I know at Block “KP”,, only one woman that has a desire and spirit in learning to read and write. Mrs. “Sm” (not her real name) is a woman who has five children with her daily activity is taking care of household. Her husband is a paddle rickshaw around Kanci Kulon village.

When I asked whether she wanted to learn reading and writing, Mrs. Sm said “yes”, even though she answered shyly. Then, she and I made a deal to create reading-and-writing schedule at 7 pm, at Mrs. A’s house, with other women who are illiterate.

Late afternoon, before reading-and-writing class starting, I was having a chat with Mrs. “U” (not her real name) at her terrace (in that time she stayed at her parents’ that is next to Mrs. Sm). Mrs. Sm came to me while she was bringing her exercise book. “Come on. Let’s study!”

Suddenly I stood up from my sit and came over Mrs. Sm. “Only you? Are other women not joining us?”

“How about we come after their house?”

“Well, okay.”

There are five houses that we came after. All of those are house of illiterate women. Although they had expressed their interests in learning to read and write together, but in that time five women seemed like did not want to join us.

“My kid does not want to be abandoned. If it happens, she will cry.”

“I want to give my kid lullaby in order that he can sleep well.”

“Aw... I am really ashamed due to my age. I am already old.”

“I am cooking. My husband is waiting for food.”

Mrs. Sm looked confused. “Well, they don’t want to join us.” She said to me. I worried if they didn’t want to join us, her spirit will be faded away in learning to read and write.

“That’s okay, Mrs. Sm. At least you still want to learn, don’t you?”

“Of course, I want to get knowledge. I will be good at it sooner or later.”

Thank God, she was still at her point of view.

This was the first time I taught women to read and write. This experience reminded me when I taught my little brother. There were many differences where an old woman with their impaired vision that I must be more patient by teaching her.

First lesson was reading the alphabet. Well, she did it. I was surprised because I had thought that she could not have read.

“Oh God, you can read well.” I was amazed.

“Of course I can. But I am not that good at looking at small letters.” She said.

I wrote a sentence with big letters in order that Mrs. Sm could read it and I asked her for reading it. She was kind of good at read but still, she read haltingly. Then I asked her for writing that I said. I must have been patient to wait for her to do that for continuing the next sentence. To expedite her writing skill, I asked her for repeating that writing in to a piece of paper on exercise book. I also give her magazine to read at home. Of course I chose the article with big letters so that Mrs. Sm could read well.

About five months I, with my friends of INSTITUT PEREMPUAN, have been assisting a group of women at Kanci Kulon village. I, for several time, have been teaching Mrs. Sm to read and write. Actually, she could read but still she read haltingly. I think her eyes do not get used to see letters, and she must wear glasses. Other her difficulty is to read small letters on some article. For helping her, I give her assignment, that is, to write one sentence on a piece of full paper, and I also give her some articles to read at home. My aim is to get used Mrs. Sm to write, read, and see some writing. From learning she was to get to know alphabet and remember alphabet until learning to read and write on this method.

Indonesian proverb says, “…Belajar setelah dewasa, bagai mengukir di atas air.” Teaching old women is not an easy thing. For old women who have certain difficulties caused by feeling zero learning to read at their age. However, I feel satisfied that I can teach some woman in village to read and write until she is good at it.

Reluctance of rural women to learn of reading and writing is my duty to do. My friends of INSTITUT PEREMPUAN and I must think hard for getting their awareness and motivation. We, often, utilize mindset of rural people that still follow patriarchal thing to ‘persuade’ women to learn of reading and writing again. In monthly gathering of Women Cooperative/Credit Union, we often have dialog with women. Kind of ways to persuade them, like;

“Ladies, imagine how luck of our children become, if we, the mothers, cannot read and write?”


“Ladies, how a mother to teach her kids to read and write if she cannot either read or write?”

Or like this;

“Ladies, how a mother to help her kids to do her kids’ homework if she cannot either read or write??”

Until like this;

“Come on, ladies, what about our kids were getting sick and we needed to write permit letter to send to school?”

It seems like this is not optimal to grow their desire to learn of reading and writing. However, my friends of INSTITUT PEREMPUAN and I are not pessimistic. We realize there is no group of women who are critical and aware about her rights without literacy thing for women. Therefore, we still endeavor to get rural women learning of reading and writing. (Les)

Translated by Nanda

Comments 2

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Jan 26, 2015
Jan 26, 2015

Thank you for sharing your story. I am so glad that you are doing this. I am doing the same thing in my country for women (and men) who come here from other countries and who don't know English. It is very exciting to teach, isn't it?

Good for you. Keep up the good work!

Kristina M
Jan 27, 2015
Jan 27, 2015

Thank you for continuing to try to teach other women how to read and write.  I agree that one is never too old to learn.  I hope as Mrs. Sm and others succeed with their lessons, others will decide to join them on the path to literacy.