Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading should be a right not a privilege

Yesterday when I was riding Berlin's metro to return home, an old woman was sitting in front of me.  She reminded me so much of my grandmother.  She was the German clone of Mama Sayyida! She had the same kind eyes, with the contradictory upset attitude she was giving the person next to her who was sitting a bit too close.  The woman moved her lips indicating discomfort, the same way my grandmother does.  I almost laughed out loud and wanted to get up and hug her.  She then looked down and continued to read.  Yes READ!

While this is a very normal activity in many countries, in Yemen where 60 percent of women are illiterate, reading is in fact a privilege.

A recent event popped in my mind reminding me of a time when mama Sayyida was ill. She was in the hospital and the family was gathered around her. I went out to buy water for everyone and found a magazine with a nice article. I bought it thinking she would like the topic, and it could give her something to do to pass the time while she's at the hospital.

When I came back I gave it to her, and she said: "thanks, there are many nice pictures in this magazine". It was at THAT moment that I remembered my grandmother can’t read. Of course I knew this all along, but I never really internalized it until then.

I also realized something else: the transformation of my family. Mama Sayyida, can’t read or write, my mother graduated from high school, and I have a masters degree.  This in fact is a testimony of the very small incremental changes in our society, but there are many other women who have not had this chance.

Three generations of Yemeni women (from left to right: me, mama & mama Sayyida)
There are thousands of young woman, who not only can't access facebook or twitter, but in fact have never learned to read or write.  They were either banned because there was no school in their village, or the commute was too long, or because they had to work to help the family, or because they married young, or the fact that the state does not implement a law making education obligatory nor provide the proper services for it.

Today, many are speaking about the importance of women's political participation, and while this is in fact important, we should not neglect the urgent need for women's access to health care and education.  Unfortunately, many gender rights group focus only on the political rights ignoring the other basic rights, and by doing so, they alienate a big chunk of the population.

I remember when I was visiting a village near the capital.  I was walking around, and met an extremely brilliant six-year old boy.  We talked and he invited me to meet his mother.  He took me to their house, and when I entered, I noticed that the mother had a sick child laying next to her.

When she saw me, she asked me, "can you read?" I said yes.  She said: "my husband bought this medicine, but I don't know how to give it to my child, and he's not home."  I took the bottle and read the instructions out loud to her.  I coincidentally happened to be there, but what about the many times, when no one is around to help?

During the time we were camped in Change Square, some women began a literacy course in one of the tents precisely highlighting this as a major priority for women.  This was an amazing opportunity for women to engage, learn and become active in their societies.

Let us all work together to demand concrete changes, and demand from the government to bring back the literacy program that it used to implement in the past.  We also must make the rights to education and health care as top political priorities in the national dialogue conference (which began on March 2013 and is scheduled to end in August 2013).

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