The simple answer? Everything.
Whilst working on safe childbirth projects in Afghanistan, I began to see that the root of addressing maternal and newborn health problems (of which Afghanistan has a poor history) began with truly empowering women. And to empower women started with literacy.
It is estimated in Afghanistan that only 20% of women aged 15-24 are literate, with that figure being three times less in rural areas. But I soon realised that literacy is the key to some power, even if it is only a little. For powerless women, even a little more means a great deal. I love this definition of literacy from Marcela Ballara, “[literacy is] the apprenticeship for the knowledge needed to cope with everyday needs, including the individual’s relationship with the surrounding world”. Literacy is correlated with the ability to gain rights, land, credit and employment. In countries where men hold the purse strings, a woman’s ability to have her own income is priceless. I came across a fantastic project that taught women literacy alongside basic business skills. If flour costs me x and I sell my bread for y, how much profit do I make? Revelationary stuff for many women in the world. Literacy leads to knowledge, and knowledge is power. And what’s more, literacy groups foster solidarity among women, creating a new community for them, and empowering them for change.
Research shows that more educated mothers are less likely to marry young, more likely to have fewer children, who are more likely to survive.
“The impact of literacy and education on a girl’s future warrants global attention, and governments all over the world should prioritize female literacy in their campaigns for progress.”
Today is International Literacy Day. Let’s connect the dots between literacy and maternal & newborn health today.
Featured photo credit: Field India, Flickr Creative Commons