Story of change: It started with a celebration

Malene Aadal Bo
Main image
Women celebrating world literacy day
A celebration on World Literacy Day 2020 showed to be a turning point in the battle against adult female illiteracy in the community of Hoskins in Papua New Guinea.

It caused somewhat of a stir in Mature an isolated community near Hoskins, West New Britain Province in Papua New Guinea when news spread that two pioneer women from the community had been admitted to the regional technical high school some 120 kilometers away.


The Papua New Guinea Education Advocacy Network (PEAN) was established in 2008 by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to advocate on basic and adult education policy and key education program issues in Papua New Guinea in line with Education For All (EFA) and now Sustainable Development Goal 4, Education 2030.

The organization has been advocating and promoting life-long learning, increased levels of literacy opportunities for all citizens including disadvantage groups, such as the poor people, women, and girls. PEAN is a member organization of Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPABAE).

Not long ago they counted among the vast group of illiterate or poorly educated women in Papua New Guinea, living in an area where schools are rare and of low quality and where families are bound to the labor intensive production of palm oil and in general only modestly motivated to prioritize education for their children – especially the girls.

Somehow these women had been given the chance to return to school, learn what they had missed out on and bring themselves in a position where they could apply for secondary education. And be admitted.

“People wanted to know how this was achieved. And other women started talking about how they wished the same chance for themselves and their daughters,” says program officer Jon Tul, from EOL-partner PEAN (Papua New Guinean Education Network).

42 percent is illiterate

Official figures from 2010 shows that almost all kids in the Papua New Guinea enroll in primary school while only 40 percent continue to secondary. The same numbers reveal that the education system seems to leave women in the lurch somewhere – resulting in a very high illiteracy among adult women.

Hence, 30 percent of women aged 15-24 are illiterate, while the illiteracy rate for the entire adult female population is 42. And for women over the age of 65 the rate is at staggering 70 percent.

According to Jon Tul the situation in palm oil producing areas like Hoskins is even more severe than the picture laid out above.

“The area is remote and without the necessary infrastructure the environment itself make a huge barrier for children’s education. Add to that the fact that the life here is very much rotating around the palm oil production which demands constant work and attention from all the members – and a general low commitment to education, particularly girls’ education. Then you have the reason why so many girls and women end up illiterate,” says Jon Tul.

Role models showed the way

Some years ago a young man who had made it all the way through tertiary education returned to his village with the ambition of improving education for his younger peers – not least the girls who he saw really falling behind. He established a school but met a high degree of skepticism from the community and only few students would come.

One of the members of the PEAN alliance heard about the initiative and offered to help. It was the Anglican Church of Papua New Guines who is running literacy training and adult education programs across the country. They brought both expertise and legitimacy to the project and slowly the local community would shift its attitude toward the school and become more open to the idea that literacy training for adult women would maybe be of value.

“Yet there was still reluctance and some who tended to look upon the classes as a sect of some sort. But then two things happened. Two students proved to have learned so much that they had been able to take the final exams and be admitted to technical high school. That sparked some positive interest. And we as PEAN came by for a celebration bringing with us several well-respected and influential people.”

Now more women are seeking education

With funds from EOL, PEAN could host an event at the school to celebrate World Literacy Day in September 2020, attracting the locals to take part. Jon Tul used his network and on behalf of PEAN invited regional politicians and community leaders to visit the school and talk about the importance of education and literacy – stressing how crucial literacy is for adults in order to have agency in their own life and supporting the next generation to get education and get a chance to develop and lift themselves out of poverty.

“Two of the larger landowners, who attended the day, ended up offering plots of their land to accommodate a much-needed extension and restauration of the school. They also offered the materials needed to build the classrooms. And in the weeks and months following the event we have had more women seeking the classes,” says Jon Tul.

What we learned

PEAN has taken three lessons with them from this development: First, it is crucial to understand the values and reality in the community you want to work with and you cannot change anything without first earning their trust and respect. Second, it is preferable to support and enhance an initiative that has already been taken instead of trying to build something from scratch. And third, things do not happen overnight.

“Only one of the young women who made it to high school is still there. The other one is now back by the oil palms. And the plots of land that were offered to extend the school lies undeveloped. But it will come. Things are starting to change, and I am sure that in a few years we will see fewer illiterate women in West New Britain.”

PEAN already signed an agreement with the West New Britain Provincial Government to work together addressing education issues in the province. Adult literacy program will be the main focus especially in the rural communities and the isolated Oil Palm enclaves. Through the partnership, PEAN will mobilise with its partners and members and work with the community groups to make sure adult literacy programs reach more communities targeting more women and girls.

Adult female illiteracy

An estimated 757 million adults and 115 million young people globally lack basic literacy, and according to a report published by UNESCO in 2016 the global literacy challenge is highly gendered. For the past two decades, women have accounted for approximately two thirds of all illiterate adults, and women’s illiteracy remains stubbornly high at 477 million, falling just 1 per cent since 2000.

Despite significant increases in girls’ enrollment in basic education, fewer than half of countries with data have achieved gender parity at the primary and secondary levels. Girls comprise the majority of out-of-school children and young people – 15 million school-age girls worldwide will never set foot in a classroom (UNESCO, 2015). Quality and equality in education are significant factors in keeping girls out of education, preventing learning and curtailing literacy.

According to the World Literacy Foundation illiteracy is not only a breach of the global right to quality education – it also have severe consequences for the individual and the society at large. Individuals with low levels of literacy are more likely to experience poorer employment opportunities and lower income. As a result, they often face poverty, dependency, low self-esteem, and higher levels of crime. Moreover, people with a low level of literacy have a limited ability to make important informed decisions in everyday life as they struggle with tasks such as filling out forms and applications, understanding government policies, reading medicine or nutritional labels, and more (WLF, 2018).

The World Literacy Foundation (2018) reported that illiteracy and low levels of literacy have estimated to cost the global economy approximately £800 billion annually. And as the global economy moves more towards a knowledge economy, literacy is an essential skill for individuals and states to compete in the global economy. When a high proportion of the adult population has poor literacy skills, many positions remain vacant as insufficient individuals are adequately skilled to fulfill those roles.