Classes bring light to illiterate women
Ren Jiunu, 38, wrote her name on a piece of paper and read it aloud, her eyes glistening with tears of joy.
Writing one's own name and reading it correctly does not seem like much of an accomplishment to most people living in the cities, but for the millions of rural women in China like Ren, it is a dream come true.
Born in the village of Sanpai in the poverty-stricken Zhangxian County of Northwest China's Gansu Province, Ren never had any chance to go to school.
Her name, "Jiunu," means the ninth daughter of the family. With no money to go to hospital, her parents were later confined to bed for years, suffering from unknown disease. The 10 children of the family struggled into adulthood with charity from villagers and relatives.
Going to school for children in such a family seemed impossible.
In 2003, however, the turning point in her life came with the arrival of "the Literacy Class for Rural Women" initiated by the Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (CDCRW), a non-profit organization serving women in rural China.
When Wang Yuanyuan, a teacher of the only primary school in the village, told Ren about the class, she was overjoyed and registered at once.
In the following two months, She not only learnt reading, writing and maths, but also basic facts about women's physiology, human rights, and practical agricultural technology like how to use compound pesticide.
Now she is confident enough to go to market alone to sell Chinese angelica, a kind of medical herb and local speciality.
"I fear no more," said she. "I can do sums now; no one can cheat me."
Ren's life has changed, but many of her peers are still shackled by illiteracy.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, by the end of 2003, the total number of illiterate Chinese was 85 million, about 6 per cent of the population. And 70 per cent of these were women.
Most of these women live in western China, like Ren's hometown in Gansu Province, where farming is still the most important way to make a living.
The traditional viewpoint regarding men as superior to women still has an influence in these regions. If the family can offer their children a chance to go to school, they will send boys rather than girls.
"Girls will be mothers," said Xie Lihua, head of the CDCRW.
"They will shoulder the responsibility to educate their children. What kind of education will the future of China receive if the mothers themselves are illiterate?"
Her concern for illiterate rural women started in 1992, when she became editor of the Rural Women Knowing All magazine, which serves women in the countryside of China.
In 1994, She went to the city of Xinji in North China's Hebei Province to promote the magazine. There she met some migrant women from Xinyang, a city in Central China's Henan Province.
She gave them some magazines as presents, but to her surprise, when she handed out the magazines, they all flinched.
Xie was puzzled, but then she was told that only one of them had entered school, and the rest could not read at all.
She was shocked, and then felt the urge to help them.
In 1996, the first literacy class was set up in the city of Zaoyang in Hubei Province.
In the following eight years, Xie and her colleagues also travelled through other provinces like Gansu and Guizhou in Southwest China, bringing knowledge and hope to local women.
The first course the women took was how to write their own names.
As Xie recalls, when the first class finished, a woman walked to the front of the classroom, wrote down her name on the blackboard. When she wrote, she could not help crying.
She said: "Now I can sign my son's test paper."
Xu Rong, literacy project officer of the centre, witnessed numerous touching scenes in her two years running literacy classes in Zhangxian County.
She still remembers the tiny sparks of the kerosene lamps in the classrooms at evenings in Sanpai Village, where electricity was only something on radio before 2002.
With no electricity, the local women filled medicine bottles with kerosene, and the twisted cotton thread were used as wicks. It was with this shabby "lamp" that they fulfilled two months of courses after everyday's housework and farm work.
Li Huibin, 33, was a teacher of the primary school of Wujiashan Village in Zhangxian County. In 2003, the women's federation of the county asked her if she wanted to teach her rural sisters in the village, she immediately said yes.
Having taken some training courses offered by Xu Rong and her colleagues, Li began her work at 7:30 every evening.
Her students were all middle-aged women who were past their prime learning years. Some of them even had difficulty holding the pencil.
"It was a tough task to teach them," recalled Li. "But all of them worked very hard, even harder than their children do."
Their zeal for knowledge made up for the defects in age.
Some of them stuck strips of paper with words on them on everything in their houses to learn the words. For example, they affixed a strip with the Chinese character "men," which means "door" in English, on the doors of their houses, to remember the word.
Their efforts were awarded by enormous changes in their lives.
In the past, they dared not go to the market alone, but when their husbands were busy, they would have to go by themselves. It was torture for them, because they did not know how to count.
They dared not go to public toilets in the town, for they could not tell which section was for women. So they had to suffer for hours until they arrived home.
Taking the bus also was a trial. The words on boards at the bus stops meant nothing to them, so they tried their best to remember the face of the driver on the way to the market. On their way back, they waited along the road, staring at every bus passing until they recognized a familiar face. Most of the time they would make mistakes and waste a lot of time on the road.
Neither did they dare go to hospital, stores or the post office.
Now things have changed.
Women who have attended literacy classes happily found their lives are different with the acquisition of knowledge.
Wang Qiuhe, a 55-year-old Christian in Sanpai Village, was excited by the fact that she could read the Bible herself.
Zhou Xianglan, a villager at Nuanshui Village, no longer had to bring a friend or relative to the store every time she wanted to buy shoes for her son.
More subtle changes took place for them.
Many women after joining the classes became empowered not only with knowledge, but also the belief in themselves.
Xie Lihua recalls that the first time she went to Zhangxian County, all the women in her classes lowered their heads, too shy to look her in the eye.
Now, every time they see her, they will sing an "anti-illiterate song" composed by themselves together with her.
"Confidence is even more important than learning itself," said Xie.
Several women found a job planting cotton in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. They have paid back the debts of the family and some even built new houses.
Their changes in life gave motivation for more rural women to learn.
Xie Lihua, the founder of the project, also has her hopes.
The literacy class in Zhangxian County, supported by charity from abroad in the past five years, was cancelled this year, due to the shortage of funds and qualified staff.
"We hope that more people will join us in helping rural women change their lives starting by becoming literate," said Xie.