Learning...

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

AT the edge of the wide green valley of Katmandu, Nepal, the village of Seelapayla sits atop one of the many emerald hills. Behind it, the hills rise higher, covered with dense, dark forest. On the flat land, rice paddies glisten in the sun. The houses in Seelapayla are of baked mud bricks, trimmed with intricately carved woodwork. There is no electricity in the village, no plumbing. When women venture behind their houses after dark to relieve themselves, they can fall prey to snakes or even tigers.

The village school is decorated with particularly beautiful wood carving, though its cracked walls sag. On a sunny, blustery afternoon, seven teachers -- all male -- lounge on the grass outside the school.

``There are twice as many boys in this school as girls,'' one teacher explains.

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Who is smarter?

``The boys.''

Why don't more girls go to school?

``Girls have to do the housework. And besides, there are more boys than girls in this village.''

Why are there more boys?

Several teachers laugh. ``In Nepalese culture,'' says one, ``people like boys better than girls.'' We pause at the implications of this remark.

``Girls are lucky to go to school at all,'' continues the first teacher. ``In the past, girls were not sent to school. They have to look after the house, the children, the cattle -- everything.''

Another teacher speaks up. ``If you give a girl education, what is it for? When she marries, she will go to another person's house. Her education is of no use to her parents.''

``There is a library here,'' says another teacher, a lanky young man with a sleepy expression, ``but if the girls go and read there, people speak ill of them. People talk about the girls, and the parents don't like it. They say the girls go there to talk with boys, and that they'll go astray. So the girls don't go to the library.''

The lady from Katmandu, who is acting as interpreter, explains, a bit defensively, that despite these prejudices, parents are beginning to see a certain value in giving their daughters an education.

``Things are changing,'' she says. ``Parents see that even after marriage some girls are in trouble, and if they have some education they can earn their own living. Some husbands are not good, they don't look after their wives and children. Some are drunkards, like my husband. Women have to be able to support themselves. That is why they now need an education.'' The gender gap in education

The female literacy rate for Nepal is among the very lowest in the world. Statistics show that 95 percent of Nepalese women are illiterate, compared with 67 percent of the men.

The developing country in Asia with the highest literacy rate both for men and women is Thailand: Illiteracy rates there, as of 1981-81 were 30 percent for women and 13 percent for men. This contrasts with figures for Egypt of 71 percent illiteracy for women and 43 percent for men, and with those for Bolivia at 49 percent illiteracy for women and 25 percent for men.

On a regional basis, male literacy is estimated at 98 percent in developed countries and 52 percent in developing countries. The gap for females is even greater: In the developed countries, 97 percent of women are literate, whereas in the developing world, the average female literacy rate is only 32 percent.

The traditional obstacles to sending girls to school -- the need to keep them working at home and the danger that they will meet boys and ``go astray'' -- are still factors in some rural areas of Africa and Asia, though they are disappearing. Only among the relatively tiny urban middle classes is education for girls universally taken for granted. Learning is for earning

For the masses, even in countries where literacy is increasing, economic necessity is the primary motive for female education. If literacy and learning will lead to a job, they are desirable. Simple arithmetic, which enables women with small businesses to keep accounts, may even be sought before literacy. But unless it relates to a woman's practical needs, formal education for its own sake is not a top priority.

In thousands of the world's villages and slums there are no books. Since the work that women find usually has little connection with the written word, the power of literacy to expand mental horizons -- indeed to change lives -- is beyond many women's comprehension.

While women everywhere say they want education for their children -- their daughters as well as their sons -- few feel it is important for themselves.

Several women in their 20s and 30s in almost every country visited by this correspondent said they had forgotten most of what they had learned in school -- including how to read and write -- because they had not had occasion to use this knowledge in the intervening years.

When it was suggested that they might go back to school, or that women who had never been to school might join a literacy class now, the reaction was usually self-deprecatory: ``I'm too old,'' a woman of 30 would reply. Or, ``I'm too stupid.''

Often, it seems, the educational systems in developing countries are at fault. Although the vast majority of countries have laws guaranteeing full access to education, the United Nations estimates that at least a third of the developing nations are not yet equipped to educate all their school-age children.

A number of school systems, such as those in Bolivia and Senegal, follow a very traditional model, dating back in some cases to colonial days. It is not surprising that rural Africans find little relevance in the French history or literature still taught in Senegalese schools.

In the Egyptian village of Harraniya, a buxom, boisterous mother named Lotfeya, who proudly displays the plumbing fixtures in the house she has just had built for her son, sees only one reason why it might be helpful if she could read.

``When I go to Cairo on the bus,'' Lotfeya concedes, ``I do wish I could read the street signs so I'd know where to get off.''

Lotfeya's attitude points to a general truth: The ability of women to solve their problems lies in the acquisition of basic life skills. The satisfaction of learning a skill

As more and more women move into the work force, the mastery of practical communications skills is becoming increasingly important. They must learn how to approach a bank for credit, how to articulate their own needs in community meetings, how to defend themselves against exploitation.

Women who, as a result of development projects, are meeting in groups for the first time in their lives are learning to identify their problems simply by articulating them -- a new experience for many. Gaining self-confidence, and discovering that they are capable of thinking through their problems and finding solutions, may be the most important form of education these women can receive at this stage.

And women already know the value of practical training in work-related skills. Women all over the world want -- often desperately need -- to learn skills so they can earn money.

At a small cooperative in the low-income housing project of Patio Bonito, near Bogot'a, Colombia, a group of women has been taught to make shoes.

A dozen of them sit together in a room with cinder-block walls and a cement floor, stitching, talking, laughing. It is clear that they take pride in their work -- and that they are enjoying themselves. With unrestrained enthusiasm they speak of their satisfaction in having learned a marketable skill, of the added sense of autonomy and self-respect their work gives them.

Asked what their advice would be to other women in the developing world if they could send them just one message, they answer in a spontaneous chorus of unanimity: ``Que se capaciten!'' -- ``They should learn a skill!''

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