Concepción González, 42, never went to school. She remembers with frustration having to stamp her fingerprint because she couldn't sign official documents, and having to respond 'I don't know' to her children's homework questions.
But the Guatemalan mother of four, who depends on the remittances that her husband sends back from the United States, where he has been working for the past few years, finally learned to read and write in 2010, and found doors opening up to a better life.
'Before, it was really hard to go to school, parents told their kids that they were studying just because they felt like it. But in time you realise you needed it,' she admits.
'Now a course in beauty school is going to start in the community, and I'm going to take it, to keep learning and try to set up my own business in the future,' she said, excited about the results of the three-month literacy course she took in her hometown of Morazán, 100 km northeast of Guatemala City.
Like González, more than 65,000 Guatemalans have learned to read and write since 2007 with the help of the Cuban literacy programme 'Yo sí puedo' (Yes I Can), which has been used in at least 28 countries worldwide, including 13 in Latin America.
Thanks to the programme, 11 of Guatemala's 333 municipalities have been declared illiteracy-free, which means less than five percent of people over 15 cannot read and write -- the threshold set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to declare an area free of illiteracy.
In this Central American country of 14 million people, 18.5 percent of adults are illiterate, according to the government's National Literacy Committee.
That is more than double the average illiteracy rate for Latin America and the Caribbean. The 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, issued by UNESCO on Mar. 1, reported that in 2008, 36 million people in the region were illiterate, equivalent to nine percent of the adult population.
Osmany Justis from Cuba, who is involved in the Yes I Can programme in Guatemala, told IPS that the programme is working, in coordination with the National Literacy Committee, in 254 municipalities in the country's 22 provinces (known as departments).
The literacy programme's methodology relies heavily on contextualisation, he explained. 'The terms used are mainly of daily use in Guatemala; instructors and students discuss things like marimba, traditional dance rhythms, or difficulties faced in the areas of family planning, violence, and food hygiene,' Justis said.
The course involves 65 half-hour daily video classes in which the students have the help of a volunteer facilitator. The 16 videos used in the course were taped in Guatemala by Cuban experts, with the participation of Guatemalan actors. The course lasts between eight and 12 weeks.
So far, the literacy programme has targeted Spanish speakers, but 'this year there are plans to tailor the methodology to the Mam and Kiche languages and context,' said Justis. These two languages are the most widely spoken of the 22 Mayan languages used in the country, where indigenous people are a majority of the population, according to native organisations.
The literacy method is based on charts that associate letters with numbers, since even illiterate people work with numbers every day, selling or buying products in the market, for example. Thus, the classes move from the familiar (numbers) to the unfamiliar (letters).
The system was created in 2001 by Cuban pedagogue Leonela Relys, at the Cuban government's request.
The method, used in Africa, Europe and Latin America, was awarded the King Sejong Literacy Prize by UNESCO in 2006.
Justis said that in Guatemala, the programme has captured the interest of mayors and, more recently, the private sector.
'Banana producers are studying it, as is the National Land Fund (FONATIERRA), with the idea of bringing in our advisers to declare their plantations and farms free of illiteracy,' he said.
FONATIERRA was created to support land purchases by small farmers, supported by USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), Japan and the World Bank.
Morazán Mayor Rigoberto Salazar told IPS that 'all Guatemalans should cooperate to bring the light to people who don't know how to read and write, and who can do this better than the municipalities, which are in close contact with the people.'
Last year, his city government provided 37,500 dollars to co-finance the programme -- an investment that will help make Morazán the 12th Guatemalan municipality to be declared free of illiteracy, in the next few days.
'From here on out, people will have the ability to communicate, and they will have greater opportunities in life,' Salazar said.
Rudy García, with the National Literacy Committee, told IPS that nearly 50,000 people will take the Yes I Can literacy course this year.
The official said poverty was the main cause of illiteracy in the country. Half of all Guatemalans live below the poverty line and 17 percent live in extreme poverty, according to United Nations statistics.
García said it is not easy to predict exactly when Guatemala could be declared illiteracy-free, since 'it doesn't only depend on our efforts, but on other factors like the coverage and quality of education as well.'
But 'we could see significant results by 2016 or 2017,' he ventured.
© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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