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Pictured above one of the most engaged and vocal attendees of Women’s Education Partnership. Jabarona Literacy Circle putting forward her ideas for improving community health.


“To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it.  Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. People are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.”  Paolo Freire 

“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.”  Rainer Maria Rilke


See At a Glance and Literacy Changes Lives to learn more about our community literacy program and the difference it makes to women’s lives. 


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All photographs of WEP’s literacy work are copyright and may not be reproduced without written permission 

Words, Circles and Power 


WEP Literacy Program Participant on joining her local literacy circle 


WEP Literacy Program Participant – after attending her local literacy circle 


Words, Circles and Power – What motivates women to seek out and join literacy circles?

Our participant’s experience while trying to find a health clinic quoted above echoes the findings of research carried out by REFLECT analysts on the factors driving literacy programs attendance.  Interestingly,  acquiring status and being respected by others comes top of the list.  The right to be respected both as an individual and as a valuable member of the community.  The right to have a voice.


 REFLECT Mother Manual, Background Theory / Philosophy, p 8 

That wanting to be respected plays such a central role in literacy uptake shouldn’t surprise us. Daring to find and use your public voice is inextricably linked to your sense of self-confidence and self worth.  And creating an environment where people will have the courage to voice their views, beliefs and ideas in the family and the community is central to REFLECT methodology.    Research has also shown that overcoming the fear of  humiliation and loss of status that admitting you are illiterate may involve is something that comes more easily to women, whose families and whole communities benefit from their courage when they determine to become literate. In Namibia and Uganda it was found that –

“Men’s unwillingness to attend (literacy circles) excludes them from both practical and empowering benefits of literacy (because there was) a greater price to pay in status”  (Communication and Power – REFLECT 2003)


Testimony of One of Our Literacy Participants – the men later encouraged their wives and daughters to attend their local literacy circle Women’s Education Partnership

Words – Naming the World


Extract from WEP monthly report on our literacy circles 

Sudan has numerous proverbs on the virtues of thoughtful silence, measured and careful speech and the dangers of expression heedless of propriety and compassion. Sudan is also a culture where respecting the territories of public and private domains of expression is valued and is carefully negotiated.  And, as Mary Beard wittily reminds us,  these domains are gendered everywhere –


Women and Power – Mary Beard The Public Voice of Women, p 11

One of the challenges of REFLECT, as discussed in Training the Trainer, is how literacy workers create an atmosphere where all participants feel free to express themselves, find their voice and contribute to dialogue.   And REFLECT researchers admit that –

“Time and time again, when it comes to the classroom situation, literacy teachers sidestep dialogue (or any effective discussion) and fall back on what they see as the ‘meat’ of teaching literacy – simple exercise of rote-reading, writing an mathematics.” (REFLECT Mother Manual) 

In one training session for literacy workers I attended, the women there performed a role-play based on the experiences of some of their participants and which reflected the hard realities they faced as domestic cleaners.  Many had been derided and insulted for their work, ethnicity and their illiteracy.   The trainers hoped that by using this role-play in their circles, they could initiate a real discussion on how their working situation could be improved and conflicts resolved.  A creative and dynamic attempt to confront the challenge of generating the effective discussion central to REFLECT.  Learn more about Literacy Circles in Action and Community Literacy and REFLECT


Circles – to Name the World and Change it 

Role plays are an effective way of opening up discussion and bringing participants together in shared life experiences.  Another way of breaking down barriers of status and generating a respectful dynamic in the literacy circle is to ensure that the circle is just that – a circle.  As far as possible, literacy workers ensure that their participants can sit, stand and move about comfortably in large, fluid circles.  This has both symbolic and practical significance.   Participants can see everyone in the circle and contribute freely.  The circle form also helps free participants from their experiences of the hierarchical structures of traditional childhood education.  Sometimes, when using school infrastructures for literacy circles,  it is not possible to achieve this but the literacy worker will still try to overcome this by moving benches around and ensuring an open space for dialogue and mapping and visualization work.


The circle also symbolizes equality of status of all the participants there and their literacy trainer.  The central ethos of REFLECT is that all views are listened to and received respectfully and can be questioned and challenged respectfully.

Only then can the work of  Freire’s “naming the world, to change it” begin and the two “parallel and interweaving processes” (REFLECT publication Communication and Power) of literacy and empowerment come together – in an ideal world – forming a virtuous  circle of action -reflection – action.


Perhaps one example of the “naming” process can be found in this extract from our monthly literacy work reports –


And perhaps an example of the interweaving of literacy and empowerment mentioned above can be seen here, where finding a public voice leads to greater health awareness for the whole community –


Here a neighbourhood cleaning project is discussed, together with deepening knowledge of religious literacy:


Extract from WEP monthly progress and assessment reports on our literacy circles

Perhaps most powerful of all is the extract quoted at the top of this article –


REFLECT Communication and Power


Power – Women’s Empowerment Enriching Society as a Whole

In The REFLECT approach to literacy and social change: A gender perspective, Sara Cottingham, Kate Metcalf and Bimal Phnuyal discuss some of the findings on research into examining if there really is a causal link between increased literacy and women’s empowerment.

They note the following when discussing women’s increased mobility :

“All three evaluations have suggested REFLECT activities encourage increased mobility of women as they share information and experiences (…………) and can thus move around the locality with confidence. (………..) In the Bangladesh REFLECT program this acquisition of local information was reinforced by the habit of leaving the ‘private’ compound to attend the ‘public’ literacy circle – with husbands’ and fathers’ permission.”


They also note:

“Another reported change was increased self-confidence on the part of women, as they claimed their right to be visible and audible in family and community meetings.  There may be many reasons for this critical change, but one important one is the valuing and systemization of previously unrecognised indigenous knowledge held by women, through the REFLECT process.  One example of this unrecognized knowledge is the ability to identify local varieties of drought-resistant seeds. Documentation of such knowledge can validate it for both men and women.”


Once again, empowering women through literacy benefits the whole community.


The Khalifa’s House, Omdurman at Sunset 

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Respecting Cultural Sensitivities 

In attempting to answering both the practical and strategic gender needs of our participants,  WEP works within and wholly respects the cultural, religious and gender-based sensitivities and structures of Sudan. All literacy workers come for the local community and use a Sudan-adapted manual of the REFLECT Mother Manual determining social, community and educational themes which form the starting point for dialogue and community action.


Continuing the Legacy – The Context 

In so many ways the work undertaken by WEP and its literacy staff is building on the foundations laid by so many socially engaged and articulate Sudanese women of the past.

Mary Beard reminds us that everywhere women’s voices strive to be heard.   Balghis Badri reminds us in Sudanese Women Profile and Pathways to Empowerment (2008, Ahfad University for Women) that Sudanese women have had strong and respected public voices in the past –


Sudanese Women Profile and Pathways to Empowerment Balghis Badri, (Editor) 2008, Ahfad University for Women 


Colours of Sudanese women’s tobes


Women’s Education Partnership   Training the Trainer    Community Literacy and REFLECT   Community Literacy and REFLECT   The Power of Folktales

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