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Women, language and literacy
Friday, December 21, 2012
From Print Edition
In the Torwali community of Kohistan in upper Swat, a unique and innovative literacy programme is currently being implemented by a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi, with financial support by Usaid under its Small Grants and Ambassador Funds Programme. Torwali, a linguistic minority, is said to have originated from the pre-Muslim Dardic society in Swat whose archaeological evidence has recently been discovered in ancient cemeteries in lower Swat by Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, a renowned archaeologist associated with the Italian Archaeological Mission.
Torwali, like its sister Dardic communities in the region of the Hindu Kush to the Himalayan ranges via Karakorum is endangered, in the sense that the language has so far remained undocumented, unscripted and unknown. Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), which has been involved in the documentation, promotion, revitalisation and utilisation of indigenous minority languages in north Pakistan for the last five years, has initiated the unique literacy project named Swat-Kohistan Women Education Project with multiple goals in sight.
The project is both unique and new for most donors and implementing partners, and is said to be first of its kind in Pakistan. In a linguistic minority of hardly a hundred thousand speakers 2,000 women in three union councils in the area of Bahrain Swat will be educated in a year by establishing 50 women’s education centres for them with native women as teachers and instructors. It is to be noted that female literacy rate in the whole area is below 2 percent; schools for girls are far from sufficient, and among the existing schools more than 60 percent are virtually dysfunctional.
The programme is innovative in the sense that the adult learners are introduced to literacy in the language they have grown up with and been exposed to – Torwali. IBT has designed a well-researched and tested curriculum in Torwali, which is being used during the initial year-long phase of the project.
The learners later make transition to the national language, Urdu, by a system of studies commonly known as ‘bridging’. Torwali has more sounds than Urdu and, therefore, more alphabets as well. The script IBT has developed for Torwali is the same as Urdu – Perso-Arabic.
In this way learners go from the known to the unknown, from the concrete to the abstract; this is the most effective way to do this as most educationists and pedagogues tell us. The syllabus is designed in a way that non-literacy subjects such as cultural studies, ethics, and sociological and political issues are taught to the students.
The project is designed to achieve five goals. First, it has to stop the ‘language shift’ by utilising Torwali in reading and writing. Women are generally more affiliated to their language and culture than men.
This initiative will enable them to read and write their language. Once they achieve that they will be able to produce and revitalise the lexicon, topology, toponymastics and traditions of Torwali in the written form. Educating these women helps to expose them to unknown languages and traditions. The women in this case will also be literate in their own language and culture, and so the chances of ‘language or culture shift’ will get reduced.
Second, this will also raise the confidence level of the native speakers. Whenever they see their language and culture recognised by others, they will feel more secure and confident about their identity. Third, IBT anticipates an increase in the enrolment of children, particularly female children in existing schools through this project.
A number of recent case studies by the ‘community movers’ of the project indicate that there is an increasing demand for new schools for girls in villages along with much anxiety at the closure of many schools. Fourth, an attitudinal change within the family system is also one of the aims of this project.
In many rural areas, the men are usually so engrossed in the provision of daily sustenance that they have lost any interest in rearing their children as they should be. Being responsible for managing the family, the women can play a greater role in investing in the future. Prioritising education within the family will be a significant impact of the initiative.
Lastly, by employing 70 women as instructors in the project, IBT and its donor organisation Usaid, have already taken a big step forward in making women self-reliant. Almost all the educated women in the Torwali community are employed by the project. This has already started to make the men in their households rethink their position on women’s education.
Many foreign and Pakistani linguists and educationists are awaiting the results of this mother tongue based bilingual literacy programme for adult women; and hope to “see it as a role model for the whole of north Pakistan”, as Aftab Ahmad, project manager at IBT puts it. There is a lot of hope resting in this project, provided Swat is not allowed to fall in the hands of the forces of dark again.
The writer is a freelance contributor who heads IBT, an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat. Email:
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