RPN 21 published April 1996

9. Literacy for Refugee Women: A case study from Nepal by Tahmina Rahman

Can an emergency response address longer term social development issues? Is it possible to promote the development of skills; raise awareness on health and other social issues and empower women at the household and community level in an emergency response? The Oxfam Bhutanese Support Programme in Nepal attempts to address these issues. Through an analysis of the NonFormal Education (NFE) component of the programme the following case study will illustrate some of its successes and weaknesses.

'Oh Education!

Education you are like the pouring rain in summer,


Education show me the way to a better life,

Give me wisdom,

Show me light,

Give me strength.'

This poem is a poignant declaration from a Bhutanese refugee woman on the value of education and what it means to her. It was published in the December/January 19941995 edition of the monthly 'Humro Kura' (Our Stories), a compilation of poems, articles and essays written by the participants of the literacy classes organised by the Oxfam Bhutanese Refugees Support Programme (BRSP).


In the years that followed the introduction in 1988 of the 'One Nation, One People' policy by the Government of Bhutan, thousands of Bhutanese citizens were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, raped and murdered by the security forces. By 1993 an estimated 100,000 people had moved to southeastern Nepal; 86,000 housed in eight camps in the densely populated districts of Jhapa and Morang. Most of these refugees were ethnic Nepalis, of Hindu culture and agricultural/rural background, of whom around 25% were adult women. Oxfam Nepal, one of the eight agencies working in the camps under the coordination of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), responded to this influx of Bhutanese refugees in a variety of ways. From September 1992 its support focused on two main components: literacy and income generation.

Initial stage of the NFE

The current NFE component was initiated by the Bhutanese Women's Association (BWA). This group felt the need to disseminate information on health and environmental issues. In the course of those informal meetings the association realised that a large number of women in the camps were not educated and decided to start literacy classes.

Approach and Teaching Method

The BRSP prudently decided to use the National Literacy Programme in Nepal as a basis to develop the NFE I, II, and III, to provide a minimum basic education to adults and children not served by the formal system. Children's classes had been discontinued in 1994 on the successful integration of those who had joined in the CARITAS run formal system of schooling. As a result, the programme could respond to the immediate needs of expansion, keeping initial investments for designing a model and developing education materials to a minimum. Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (1968) key word approach was used throughout the programme. Efforts were made to relate the lessons to the participants' daily lives and provide opportunities for discussion. The instructional strategy involved helping small groups of participants to learn from one another, and in the process develop critical thinking, problem solving, and literacy skills. Refugees were hired as facilitators of this learning process.

NFE I focused on providing basic reading and writing skills in Nepali and arithmetic which refugees (particularly women) could use in their daily lives. NFE II designed post literacy activities for the newly literate from NFE I to enable them to retain literacy and numeracy skills. NFE III aimed to develop individual learning initiatives and therefore to bring the programme to an appropriate phasing out stage. A total number of 1417, 4877 and 6409 refugees participated respectively in 1992, 1993 and 1994 with the following female/male ratio: 5/1, 4/1, and 3/1.

Impact of the programme

Together, these components of the NFE helped to develop the literacy skills of the refugees, particularly in Nepali and English; raised awareness on public health issues; enabled refugee women to come together for emotional support and comfort and to articulate their needs to relief personnel. With the skills and added knowledge, women gained some confidence to participate better in decisionmaking both at the household and camp levels.

Making space for women

Both the BWA and Oxfam staff were sensitive to the fact that women were suffering stress from both preflight atrocities and post flight insecurities in a new environment, but culturally had difficulty in meeting with others and sharing concerns. In Bhutan mobility was fairly restricted for most women. The NFE compounds provided a 'semipublic space' that most men found acceptable for their wife and daughter to use, giving some of the women their first taste of interaction with a range of people outside their own homes. In order to encourage women's participation, separate male and female classes have been organised, and when appropriate different age groups have been set up. Class timings in the afternoon allow women enough time for ration collection, child minding and other household activities before coming to the classes.

Use of literacy skills

Literacy skills enabled women to communicate and express themselves better; it meant that they were able to write simple letters, read sign boards, medicine labels, newspapers, bulletin boards, do simple calculations and distinguish currencies. For the first time in their lives women were in a position to tutor their little ones at home. All this made an enormous difference in the way refugees, particularly women, perceived their own lives and approached their future. For instance Shila Rai and her group wrote in an essay:

'...if possible women should move forward. We want to have equal rights with men. We have now become literate and we want to participate in the development of our country...'

Health Awareness

In addition to the heath related contents of the NFE text books, workshops were organised in collaboration with Save the Children Fund (SCF) to reinforce health awareness amongst NFE staff and participants. SCF reported an increased use of the health centres, particularly for immunisation and child illnesses. NFE participants are said to have played an important role in the prevention of an outbreak of cholera in the camps.

Initiatives at the household and community level

Women who were initially shy are now challenging ideas, as well as putting forward their own suggestions. For instance, they are now involved in organising ration distribution. NFE participants have been elected in the camp committees and are also members of the Refugee Women's Forum (RWF), the representative body for women refugees in the camps. RWF members, formerly NFE participants, claim that learning to read and write has given them confidence to undertake community activities. Many have motivated their husbands to join NFE classes. Again there are instances of increased confidence at the household level.

Radhika Mahat, aged 17, never had the opportunity to go to school. She joined the NFE and spent much of her spare time reading and writing. At the time when she was completing NFE I her family wanted her to marry. She refused saying that she wanted to continue her education. She is now working as a community health worker and she feels that through education she gained respect from her family and enough confidence to decide what she wants.

Therapeutic impacts

Refugees are encouraged to borrow books from the reading centres and to write for the camp bulletin board and the Humro Kura. These activities are highly popular among the wider refugee community, and especially among NFE participants who are overjoyed with a sense of pride when their material is selected. Changes on the bulletin boards are always awaited with anticipation. These activities promote a literate environment and help prevent a relapse into illiteracy. The writings are expressions of the creative energy which helps refugee women/men to channel their deepest emotions, the therapeutic impact of which is obvious.

Issues of Sustainability

Issues concerning participation, transfer of responsibility and ownership of the learning process need to be carefully considered in order to address sustainability issues of such a programme.

Although the programme involves a large number of refugee women as participants, supervisors and facilitators, they have little say in the planning and management of the NFE, which are taken over by senior management staff. This has created a chain of dependency which is likely to inhibit the process of preparing participants/refugee community to assume responsibility for this programme or indeed any other. While recruiting individual women from the affected community is crucial in the effective running of the programme, there is also a wider need to support and strengthen indigenous women's groups in order to ensure longer term sustainability.

A greater degree of participation in the different stages of the programme such as defining needs, designing teaching aids, producing of postliteracy materials would enable refugees to organise and run similar programmes in the future. More flexibility in order to incorporate changes would also promote meaningful links with other issues arising in a refugee situation. Onsite training, in the actual NFE classroom, should be done as opposed to formal workshop situations. Participatory programme monitoring and evaluation with staff, supervisors, facilitators and participants could be incorporated as part of the skill development process.


The Nepal experience has added valuable lessons to our understanding of social development and emergencies. It has drawn our attention to the necessity of addressing issues of skill development, the need for women's space and awareness raising, and the value of such work at the individual and collective level in a refugee situation. At the same time it indicates the importance of working with refugee women's organisations and the need for a greater degree of consultation and participation to address issues of sustainability.

Tahmina Rahman is Oxfam's Social and Developmental Adviser within the emergency and public health department.

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October 1996