A small group of Ladakhi women of differing ages chant together while running their fingers along the books in held in their laps. The ability to read simple religious texts, to be able to dial a phone number… these are the diverse range of modern and traditional skills the women attending the adult literacy project have acquired.
Literacy levels in Ladakh are generally low. This figure further drops when it comes to women’s literacy. MIMC and Ven. Sanghasena, who are deeply interested in the girl child and women’s empowerment, see this as a key area of focus. The Women’s Literacy Project, was inaugurated under the sponsorship of the International Association for Liberal Religious Women (IALRW). Today, the project has grown to cover eight villages around Leh as well as Alchi, and Narula. The friends and sponsors of the project too have grown from its initial phase.
In the winter of 1997, an extraordinary event took place in the village of Stakmo. The 3 Dolmas as they are sometimes called (Tsewang Dolma, Kunzes Dolma & Tsewang Dolma) were sent word that the women of the village of Stakmo were ready for a meeting with them. At the gathering, the women submitted a list of 33 women, who wanted to learn to read and write.
After 4 years of continuous correspondence, Tsewang Dolma’s dream of the Women’s Literacy Project for Ladakh was finally taking shape. It had all started in 1993 at the International Association for Liberal Religious Women (IALRW) Annual Conference held at Bangalore. A chance meeting and some in-depth concern had resulted in MIMC submitting its first proposal for a Literacy Project for the women of Ladakh.
The 3 Dolmas and the women of Stakmo agreed on a teacher, the timing of the classes which would accommodate the household and livelihood duties of the women including the suspension of classes during sowing season of June and the harvesting season of October. The Stakmo Centre of the Women’s Literacy Project stated classes with a wide variety of students attending. The youngest learner was 14-year-old Diskit who had dropped out of school, and the oldest, a 60-year-old lady who was keen to read and write the local script of Bodyig. There were also many nuns, who were keen to learn the alphabets. Young Diskit went on to join formal school after 3 years of learning at the Stakmo Centre. In the 1999 elections, the Stakmo learners proudly signed their names while casting their votes, instead of the usual thumbprint they had used for so long. By 2005, they new enough ‘numbers’ to read price tags and make their own telephone calls. And when they went to the main bazaar at Leh, they made shopping lists.
In 2005, the 3 Dolmas sat down the 33 learners at the Stakmo Centre with a unique request. The women of the Housing Colony at Leh had been repeatedly requesting for a Literacy Centre. No funding had been identified to open a new Centre. Would the women of Stakmo consent to their Centre being shifted? The small properties of the Centre would remain in Stakmo, they could continue to gather informally to practice; but could the regular program be now intended for the women of Housing Colony, Leh? The women thought long and hard and decided that what they had benefited from the Program should be made available for the Housing Colony also. The Stakmo Centre was formally shifted to Housing Colony, Leh in November 2006.
Ms Tsewang Dolma describes the changes in the Stakmo learners with a smile –“The first time when Dr. Nelly visited them, they wouldn’t look at her. The second time, it was okay – okay. The third time, they were smiling broadly. One of the learners had written a poem about Dr. Nelly and was proudly reading it out. It is important that they know how to present themselves. Even in the village gatherings, the women are usually shy and never articulate their opinions. They have a lot of concern for community issues, now they stand up and speak.”