Mi shiknar: I will learn. Literacy and empowerment among Bombay's slum women

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Susan Wadley


India, Womens studies, Adult education, Continuing education

Subject Categories



What does literacy bring to the lives of Indian women from the slums of Bombay? Women from four slums chose to become literate after having survived in Bombay for years. Literacy was brought to their communities at their request. They saw it as the means to ensure the futures of their children. These women broke away from traditional socialization practices to question the injustices commonplace in their lives such as lack of access to power and education.

The agency CORO acted as a central resource to two of these slums, the other two being supervised by college students. Teachers were mainly children and a few young men and women. They were trained in the use of materials by agency personnel. Classes were held at night using government developed materials. Data was collected in the form of interviews (10-180 minutes), individual, group, in dyads and at town meetings. Teachers and learners were interviewed, upon their approval and willingness. The youngest teacher was five and the oldest learner was sixty years old. Tests were conducted weekly by volunteers.

Critical literacy theorists who work with the framework of literacy as empowerment and liberation fail to address the importance of literacy as it relates to popular knowledge and end up imposing their own "sensitized" version of knowledge on their learners. This study agrees with their precept that literacy is empowering. It goes a step further in stating that learners are capable of deciding what are their expectations of and goals for literacy. Women's literacy has been dealt with from psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, development, political empowerment, cultural and communal perspectives. This study states that while oppression is a universal phenomenon, experiences of it are personal. The feminist approach used is one that is inclusive, focusing on socialization and resocialization.

Women changed their expectations of literacy as education to survival and as a means to understanding and claiming their rights. They preferred reading to writing which meant more work. Classes provided a safe forum for women to organize and express their concerns as when two slums united to battle against alcoholism and gambling. Deterring factors such as irate spouses, worked as spurs to learning. Changed attitudes towards socialization of children were clearly expressed. Literacy meant a complete rediscovery of their external surroundings and internal world. Women discovered the existence of their personal voice and it's effectiveness. Literacy stopped being a goal; it became a means to an end: empowerment.


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