Khabar Lahariya, a local weekly newspaper, is produced and distributed by newly-literate women in the Bundelkhand district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India [AMI VITALE/NIRANTAR]

Life in Bundelkhand, a desperately poor district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, is hard at the best of times.

In a land ravaged by drought for the past decade, farmers can only look on as their crops fail, their cattle die and their incomes wither under the searing Indian sun.

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For the women who live there, the daily challenge of scratching a living from the scorched land means that education has become a luxury rather than a right.

Yet among Bundelkhand's barren fields, a pioneering literacy project is flourishing in some of the district's poorest communities.

Khabar Lahariya - which means News Waves - is a weekly newspaper with a difference. It is produced and distributed by newly-literate women in the local language, Bundeli, and is aimed at some of the most marginalised people in India.

On September 8, to mark the International Day of Literacy, the newspaper will  receive a prestigious UN prize in recognition of its record of providing journalistic training to rural women with low levels of literacy.

'Low caste'

"Often the women haven't finished their schooling, and the few literacy skills they do have are forgotten," says Disha Mullick, from Nirantar, the New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation behind the project.

"A lot of them don't have formal skills, but they learn on the job."

Literacy in numbers...

 Most literate:
- Cuba, Estonia and Poland have highest literacy rate with 99.8 per cent of those aged over 15 able to read and write
- The US and the UK come seventeenth globally with a literacy rate of 99 per cent

 Least literate:
-
Countries with a literacy rate under 30 per cent include Burkina Faso (23.6), Mali (24), Chad (25.7), Afghanistan (28.1), Niger (28.7) and Guinea (29.5)

Source: UN Development Programme report 2007/8

Fifteen women from "low caste" and tribal groups work on the paper, which has been running since 2002 and has a steadily growing readership.

That might have a lot to do with the way it is distributed. Khabar Lahariya reporters are involved in every aspect of the production process.

When they have written their stories, edited the copy and the paper has been printed, they are responsible for selling copies, for two rupees each, to men and women from the local area.

Mullick says the unusual distribution model allows the news to reach places it didn't before - the so-called "media dark" areas of the state that lie beyond the reach of satellite television and other news sources.

"We have a wide range of readers in rural areas that other newspapers don't reach. It's the only newspaper published in Bundeli, the local language, and it carries news that is relevant," she says.

Not all of those who buy the paper are fully literate.

"The people have varying levels of literacy. Sometimes the journalist will read the paper aloud to those who can't read," Mullick says.

Challenging status quo

It is a virtuous circle, engaging the community in the difficult process of learning to read and write while keeping them up to date with the news.

But the benefits of the project do not end there. Producing the newspaper, Mullick says, is about far more than becoming literate. Like all good newspapers, it aims to challenge the status quo and question authority.

"Literacy opens up new horizons of opportunity, improves standards of life and contributes to processes of social change and poverty eradication"

Koichiro Matsuura, Unesco

"It causes women to be seen in different ways," she says. "Going out and questioning people is not usually what is expected of them. Now they can question their situation."

And that, she hopes, is one step to improving their lot.

The relationship between increased literacy levels and improvements in standards of living is widely accepted, and forms the thrust of the main arguments for stamping out illiteracy.

"Literacy opens up new horizons of opportunity, improves standards of life and contributes to processes of social change and poverty eradication," says Koichiro Matsuura, the Director-General of the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

But the scale of global illiteracy is staggering. There are around 776 million illiterate adults across the world. Many are from disadvantaged communities, and the problem disproportionately affects women and girls.

In his annual message to mark International Literacy Day, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, described the situation as "appalling".

Political participation

Experts draw strong correlations between illiteracy and poverty, marginalisation and difficulties in social development. Despite this, world leaders say many governments are not doing enough to challenge the problem.

"In many parts of the world there is neither the political will nor the resources to make youth and adult literacy an area of priority action," Matsuura says.

"Those whose lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills is not being addressed are being told that their rights, their needs and their hopes do not count. This is an unconscionable situation."

Experts also note that literacy gives rise to a range of positive individual benefits, including increased confidence and assertiveness, essential attributes for a greater engagement with society.

"The self-esteem generated by literacy skills facilitates social and political participation," Matsuura says.

That has certainly been the experience of the women in Bundelkhand. "They are leaving the home to go out and work," Disha Mullick says. "It increases their confidence."

The success of the project may lie in the community engagement upon which it is based. "The project combines literacy with access to information," Mullick points out. "It offers this to people who had neither."

In doing so, it has helped to empower communities whose low literacy levels ensured they were shut out of any meaningful debate within their society.

Of course, it has not solved all their problems. Many women of Bundelkhand, particularly those in the most vulnerable groups that the project focuses on, still face desperate conditions in their day-to-day lives.

But Khabar Lahariya has given them both a reason and a road-map to lift themselves from illiteracy and, in doing so, has left them better equipped to face the challenges of the future. There are 776 million people waiting for the same opportunity.

Andrew Wander is a Reprieve media fellow working on Al Jazeera’s Public Liberties and Human Rights Desk.

Source: Al Jazeera