Sahajani Shiksha Kendra: Literacy and Education for Women’s Empowerment

Country Profile: India


1,210,193,422 (2011 census)

Poverty (population living on less than US$1.25 per day)

42% (2005)

Official languages

Hindi and English

Total expenditure on education as % of GNP


Primary school net enrolment / attendance ratio (2005–2010)


Primary school completion rate


Total youth literacy rate (15 – 24 years, 2005 – 2010)
  • Female: 74%
  • Male: 88%
  • Total: 81%
Adult literacy rate (15 years and over, 2005 – 2010)
  • Female: 51%
  • Male: 75%
  • Total: 63%
Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleSahajani Shiksha Kendra: Literacy and Education for Women’s Empowerment
Implementing OrganizationNirantar (a national NGO)
Language of InstructionHindi and Bundeli (local languages)
FundingSir Dorabji Tata Trust, DVV (German Adult Education Association)
Date of InceptionMay 2002 (ongoing)

Context and Background


In recent decades, the Government of India has instituted some educational programmes such as the National Literacy Mission, and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in an effort to combat the scourge of illiteracy in the country. As a result, the rate of literacy rose from about 18% in the 1950s to about 52% in 1991 and then to about 65% as of 2000 – 2006. In spite of this notable achievement, about one-third of India’s population is currently functionally illiterate and about 50% of the entire adult female population (aged 15 years and above) can not read or write. The rate of illiteracy is particularly high in rural areas, especially among socially marginalised minorities, women and people from lower castes. For instance, according to the 2001 national census, the urban and rural literacy rates in the state of Uttar Predesh (north India) was 70% and 52% respectively. Similarly, the discrepancy between male (69%) and female (42%) literacy rates was alarmingly high. The launch of the Saakshar Bharat Mission for Female Literacy in September 2009 is one of the most recent and much needed efforts to bridge these gaps.

Recognising that persistent female illiteracy is a major impediment to women’s empowerment, NIRANTAR – a national centre for gender and education – has since 1993 been working towards helping rural poor women access literacy and educational opportunities, enabling their access to information and engendering educational processes. Sahajani Shiksha Kendra, the literacy and educational programme for women’s empowerment was initiated in 2002, in an effort to empower women in Lalitpur district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Sahajani Shiksha Kendra: A Programme of Literacy and Education for Women’s Empowerment

Nirantar initiated Sahajani Shiksha Kendra (SSK) in 2002. 'Sahajani' in the local language means ‘one who helps women’. The programme broadly aims at empowering women and adolescent girls through literacy and education – an education that makes connections with their lived realities and rights, and enables them to develop analytical skills on gender, development and other issues. Through its different activities, the programme reaches over 2000 women and adolescent girls belonging to the most marginalised communities like Dalits (Scheduled Castes – SC) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes – ST).

SSK is a programme for empowering rural women and adolescent girls through education. This programme explores innovative ways of working with women on issues of gender and education. It is distinct in that all its strategies and programmes are women-centred and focus on adult literacy and women’s education. SSK’s work on adult literacy, nurtured by Nirantar, becomes critical in a context where women’s literacy rates are as low as 20% in SC and ST areas and where there is a dearth of ‘best practices’ and models on adult literacy.

Some of the highlights of the programme include an innovative ethnographic research on literacy-numeracy practices, developing and testing various packages and modules of thematic literacy and Continuing Education (CE), and linking issues of health, gender, violence, caste, right to work, etc, with the educational work.

The unique value of SSK is that it is focused on women’s empowerment. Today ‘adult education’ is used interchangeably with ‘vocational training’ or ‘functional literacy’, and there are very few initiatives that integrate women’s empowerment and social transformation within their educational work. Nirantar’s SSK programme foregrounds ‘literacy for empowerment’, by linking women’s lived realities to its educational initiatives – which take the form of camps, centres or the development of locally contextualised material for enabling and sustaining literacy.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Thematic Literacy and Continuing Education (CE) Nirantar believes that literacy forms an important part of the education continuum and that literacy and education are rights which women and socio-economically disadvantaged communities have been denied. For literacy to indeed be empowering and transformative, we believe that the education process should connect with women’s lived realities. We thus try and make this happen by embedding our literacy work within the contexts and lives of the women we work with, and by exploring ways in which literacy can help women confront the challenges they face in their daily lives. We believe that this is best done by adopting multiple strategies that respond to emerging needs. The strategies adopted in the SSK programme are as follows:

Some visuals from these centres and camps are given below.



One example of the linkage of the educational initiatives with local issues is the initiative related to the right to work and employment. The main objectives of this initiative were to work on women’s literacy along with awareness on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), to enable their access to information on NREGA and to help women grow in confidence to demand and get their rightful entitlements vis-a-vis NREGA. The literacy module for this included activities like the use of literacy/numeracy skills for demanding and getting NREGA entitlements, applying for ‘Job Cards’, filling of 'demand-for-work' forms, reading ‘Job Cards’, submitting them to government officials, wall writings on NREGA entitlements, and community-level meetings with discussions on gender, women and work, and State accountability. Begun in 2007, the NREGA-literacy work has now covered about 80 villages of Lalitpur district, reaching out to over 500 SC, ST women. Some examples of worksheets from the NREGA-literacy camps are given below.



Residential School for School Dropouts (Eight-month Bridge Course)

Yet another important aspect of the SSK programme is to support young women and adolescent girls who are school dropouts to bridge the gap they have faced, and to continue their education through a mainstream process. This is a residential course in which the girls and women are taught language, mathematics and issues through a spcial curriculum developed by Nirantar that comprises the following themes – Society, Body, Land-Water-Forest, Market and Media. At the end of the eight months special coaching camps are held to help the women give examinations in the formal school system, and they are supported and encouraged to continue their studies further.

Developing a Cadre of Local Rural Women as Trainers/Facilitators

The implementation of the SSK programme is possible through a cadre of young women belonging to the most marginalised sections of society. They are all women, many of them single, from Dalit and Backward communities from the local area. Over the past eight years of the programme, Nirantar has made huge investments in building this human resource, many of whom are newly literate women themselves. They are skilled in working on issues of gender, in imparting literacy, continuing education and feminist pedagogy. They are good communicators and mobilisers in the field. To a great extent, this group manages its own programme and provides resource inputs to newcomers to the programme, as well as to outsiders.

Building Women’s Leadership through Collectives

At the village level, there is a cadre of newly-literate Dalit and Adivasi women leaders in the SSK programme. They are organised into loose collectives called ‘samitis’ and the vision is for them is to strengthen their literacy skills through a Continuing Education programme, and to come together in a collective formation – a federation – that will act as a pressure group in the area to demand and get entitlements. These collectives are engaged in dialogue and negotiation with local self-government, and events like awareness programmes, rallies, demonstrations, etc. This is an important strategy for strengthening greater participation and ownership of the local community in the SSK programme, and also in the long-term sustainability of the change process.



Creation of Teaching-Learning Materials and Curricula

Developing material for the Sahajani programme has formed an important aspect of our work. We have employed different strategies to create a range of teaching-learning and reading material. The initial primer has been developed by the Nirantar team in Delhi. We have also been involved in developing locally contextualised material that has been informed by research studies using an ethnographic approach. This material is being developed collaboratively by the Nirantar and SSK teams. Women and adolescent girls together bring out ‘Jani Patrika’ - a local broadsheet which is produced in the local language of the area (Bundeli).

Programme Impact and Challenges


So far 2145 women and adolescent girls in 112 villages have undergone an intensive program of literacy, continuing education, awareness and empowerment. They have also been organized into 72 village level women’s collectives. Over the years, a resource group and cadre of 50 women facilitators have been trained and established from among the newly literate women from the local area. 100% of the programme’s outreach is amongst women from marginalised communities like Dalits and Adivasis.


One of the main challenges of this programme has been in working with the poorest and most marginalised communities in the country, especially women, for whom access to good quality education has never been prioritized. Since these women face multiple marginalisations in economic, social and political domains, it has been a challenge to integrate all these issues within the educational curriculum. Due to these vulnerabilities, as well as due to the programme being located in a geographically difficult interior area, there is huge dropout rate amongst staff members of the SSK programme.

At a programmatic level, we have struggled to highlight the importance of women’s literacy and education. While children’s education has had policy and programme support, it has always been challenging to showcase and even raise money for an initiative like SSK, especially from the government.


While working with the poorest and most vulnerable, who have been oppressed and marginalised for thousands of years – women, Dalits, Adivasis - ‘sustainability’ is not something that can be achieved in a few years. It often takes decades and decades of investment and capacity-building for the change to be visible and meaningful. Despite that, one of the achievements of the programme has been the fact that ownership and leadership of the programme is now in the hands of a local team. Initially, Nirantar played a proactive role in building this group, but they are now a fairly autonomous entity. The depth of the programme at the village level gives us reason to hope that the stakes to make the programme a success are no longer Nirantar’s alone. The community and the local leadership of SSK have taken over this mantle. This probably bodes well for the sustainability of the programme since the human capacity for it exists.

Another important role that Nirantar and SSK are playing is in providing resource and technical support to several non-governmental and some governmental programmes in order to take on thematic literacy work with an empowerment focus. Through this, we are reaching out to many women across the northern belt of the country indirectly. Institutionalising our learnings, documenting them, providing trainings to others and supporting similar pilots in other regions based on our experiences are ways in which the programme’s sustainability will hopefully be addressed over the next few years.


  2. UNESCO (King Sejong Literacy Prize), Indian village women find a voice, 2009
  3. India EduNews, (4 August 2009): Newspaper by rural Indian women wins UN literacy award
  4. Illiteracy and Educational problems in India, Nov. 2009


Disha Mullick or Shalini Joshi
Project Coordinators
NIRANTAR: Centre for Gender and Education
B64, 2nd Floor, Sarvodya Enclave
New Delhi 110017, India
Phone: (91-11) 2-696-6334
Fax: (91-11) 2-651-7726
Email: nirantar.mail (at)