Empowering Women in India
Thousands learn to read through literacy program.
By Loren Seibold
MINISTERING ANGEL: Hepzibah Kore, Women’s Ministries director of the Southern Asia Division and the literacy program organizer, asks the Lord to bless the literacy program. The classes have created opportunities for telling Indian people about Jesus, and as a result many have also been baptized.am a passenger in a taxi, watching with some uneasiness the frenzy outside: buses, trucks, bullock carts, pedestrians, pedal rickshaws, scooters, three-wheel minicabs—all mixing and dodging, appearing at every instant on the verge of a collision barely avoided. Next to my window, traveling at our same pace, is a small putt-putting motorcycle. Sidesaddle behind the driver sits a young woman. Her shiny black hair is tied back with an interlacing of white tuberose blossoms. A purple sari with gold-thread trimming wraps about her in that flowing, ethereal way that only Indian women can manage. As the cycle swerves and bumps, as black exhaust billows around her, she sits calmly, unalarmed, her hands in her lap. I am astonished at such poise in that maelstrom of vehicles, noise, and pollution.
This snapshot of India helps to explain why, when people ask me what I found most impressive, most memorable about India, I always say, “The Indian women.” They are strong, purposeful, beautiful, and graceful in the midst of poverty, corruption, inequality, and a suffocating crush of humanity.
A few days later I was cross-legged (or as close to it as my American legs could manage) on a concrete floor, knee-to-knee with about 30 women in an orange-trimmed room in a small, crowded (always, everywhere in India, crowded) village near the city of Thiruvananthapuram. I’d been invited to watch them learn to read.
LEARNING CIRCLE: Literacy classes sponsored by the Adventist Church’s Hope for Humanity greatly enhance the quality of life as well as raise community respect for women in India. More than 200 literacy classes are currently being taught in five south India provinces.Surprisingly, for a country for two centuries under Great Britain’s educational system, 60 percent of India’s women are illiterate. In the poorer classes, women are barely more than servants. In some parts of rural India a poor family’s second or third female baby may quietly die its first night from an extract of poisonous oleander mixed into its milk. The parents simply say, “She didn’t live,” though neighbors know the truth: the family couldn’t afford another dowry, that heavy payment to a groom’s family that must accompany a girl if she would have any hope of marriage.
Indian people are accustomed to being packed closely together. In a country with a population density nearly a dozen times that of the United States, little choice exists. I, used to my Western comfort zone, found the classroom a bit close. Around me, though, was an exuberance to offset my claustrophobia. With stubs of chalk and handheld slates the women practiced the swirly Tamil alphabet. The instructor wrote short sentences on a large blackboard, as the class repeated chorally after her, again and again. Then each practiced writing the words on her own slate. Though the students were mostly non-Christian, their Seventh-day Adventist teachers illustrated the lessons with Christian songs and Bible texts. Every face wore a smile.
I sat next to a young woman wearing a deep red sari. The crimson bindi between her eyebrows (a traditional symbol of insight) had been smudged by the squirming little one in her arms.
EMPOWERING LIVES: Learning to read empowers women to earn a living, help their children with theirhomework, take care of family finances, and gain respect from theirfamilies and others in the community.“This is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she said with a broad, bright smile. “I am beginning to read newspapers and books. I can help my children with their homework. My husband is proud of me.”
For her graduation from the program, she received the first book she had ever been able to call her own: a copy of the Bible in Tamil.
The human angel behind this ministry is Hepzibah Kore, Women’s Ministries director of the Southern Asia Division, who has dedicated her life to teaching India’s women to read. From the humblest farming villages to prostitutes in the Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta) slums, Kore believes that when women are able to read, their lives will be transformed. She travels thousands of kilometers every year to visit her more than 200 literacy classes at five sites: Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, and Garo Hills. At each site Kore first trains teachers, provides teaching materials, then helps the classes take shape.
“People can’t read the Bible until they can read,” Kore says. “These classes give them confidence, and they begin to seek new meanings for their lives.”
CONGESTED CITIES: Overcrowded roads and streets are common throughout India, as depicted in this New Delhi scene.That’s why the reading classes aren’t the end of the story: the graduates are invited to practice their reading in follow-up Bible study classes.
Literacy for India’s women is one of the new faces of the program many of us used to know as Ingathering. Today the program is called Hope for Humanity (though the new name is not yet familiar, even to many Adventists).
The cornerstone of the old Ingathering was door-to-door solicitation. But going to people’s doors has become unwelcome in suburbs and unsafe in cities, and since the 1980s the contributions from door-to-door solicitation have shrunk dramatically. It is not a coincidence, insists Hope for Humanity director Maitland DiPinto, that Adventist name recognition in North America followed that same downward track. That’s why Hope for Humanity is trying to open some new doors.
“We’re creating new ways to get our communities involved in the humanitarian work we do,” DiPinto says. “We don’t want just to get contributions. We want to form partnerships.”
MEETING THE MAYOR: Hope for Humanity director Maitland DiPinto (middle) and other members of the visiting group talk with a village mayor (left).All over North America churches and schools, and in some cases entire conferences, have signed up to become partners in one of Hope for Humanity’s several projects. In the Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho—in which half of all the AIDS cases in the world exist—major Hope for Humanity initiatives are tackling the problem of HIV and AIDS. (See cover article titled “A Place of Hope” in the November 2006 Adventist World.) And in both India and Central America, Hope for Humanity is helping Seventh-day Adventist teachers teach women to read.
As we stepped from our air-conditioned coach in the village of Reddipalem in Andhra Pradesh, India, I felt I’d stepped back in time. People here live in traditional palm-thatched huts. Next to the diminutive concrete church, a man wearing only a lungi tucked up for work, relaxed with his docile, still-dripping water buffalo. This tiny rural village is located only a few kilometers from the Indian Ocean.
“The water from the 2004 tsunami almost reached our village,” the village president told us.
Inside the church I marveled again at Indians’ ability to get comfortable on hard floors in close quarters. Across from me a young woman in an orange sari wrote Telugu letters on her slate. She lined the words with a finger, suggesting I repeat them after her. I’d no idea what I was saying, though general laughter showed my attempts were entertaining.
One in my group was elderly—thin in hair, teeth, and body. Her brow furrowed and her hand trembled as she formed a few letters on the slate.
“What kept you from learning to read when you were young?” I asked her through a translator. “My family was poor,” she said. “I married at 13. No one thought a girl needed education.”
GETTING TO KNOW THEM: Loren Seibold, pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, church in the United States, talks to the women about the difference learning to read makes in their lives.“How has this class helped you?” I continued. Her face brightened. “It has changed my life,” she said.
Indeed, I thought, learning to read would do that. But her awkwardness with the chalk made me wonder. “What have you learned?” I asked. “To read the sign on the front of the bus!” she said, pleased with herself. “I can go places alone and not get lost!”
Too old to become a fluent reader, she’d learned enough to read the public transport marquee, to sign her own name, and to count her money so she’s not shortchanged in the market. Those few accomplishments transformed her life. So late in her life has come this boost to her self-esteem.
“My husband and children respect me now,” she said. “I am a more valuable wife and mother.”
I noticed what looked like a Bible under her slate. “Do you read this book?” I asked. “It is hard,” she answered, “but I want to learn.”
With God’s help, and ours, I believe she will.
For more information about Hope for Humanity and its programs, go to www.hope4.com.
Loren Seibold is the senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Adventist church in the United States.