Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In Lebanon, Determination Can Even Surmount Illiteracy

By Lama Zeinoun
My name is Lama Zeinoun Tabet. I am a 36-year-old woman living in Beirut, Lebanon. In 2007, I worked as a trainer with the Women Empowerment: Peaceful Action for Security and Stability project, or WE PASS, developed by the United Nations Population Fund and the Lebanese National Commission for Women. The aim of the project was to empower rural women in Lebanon, and it was implemented in 10 Lebanese villages in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley.
I was asked to develop and implement training sessions on household budgeting for the women in the villages that were covered by the project. Our work went well. I conducted three workshops in each village and the women who participated were taught the basic concepts of variable and fixed revenue, variable and fixed expenses, and income. They acquired the financial skills to build a home budget and stick to it. I was satisfied with my work until we reached a village where the women who had been selected for the project did not show up. Instead, a number of other women attended the sessions that we had organized, and they could neither read nor write.
On the first day, the project coordinator, Elissar Doueihi, and I were not able to train them because they could not read. I felt helpless. All the books and resources I had were useless in front of these women who were limited in their skills, yet very determined to learn. And they insisted that we train them in something, anything. The women all worked with their husbands in the fields, growing crops while also taking care of their homes. They wanted to learn and were adamant that, somehow, they take advantage of the training sessions.
I returned to Beirut that night with Elissar. During our drive back we tried to come up with some method that would permit us to teach these women what we had taught the others in our program. Their thirst for learning and their determination was so intense that it was impossible for us to surrender to the idea of not training them. We spent the next week discussing and thinking about what we could do, until we had an idea. We thought about the fact that even though the women were illiterate, they were not blind.
So why not use images and colors to teach them at least the meaning of fixed and variable expenses and how they might distribute their income accordingly?
We then spent another week preparing colored envelopes, papers and stickers with different images on them. We went back to the village soon thereafter and the training session went extremely well. Using the color codes and images we had developed, we were able to teach the women the difference between variable expenses, fixed expenses, revenue and savings. They were able to identify specific types of expenses and revenues using the picture stickers. They also learned how to distribute their revenue among the expenses and savings using the color-coded envelopes we had prepared.
In reflecting on this project, I think about how often those planning projects say that the pre-planning phase is very important for success. I totally agree. The workshops done at nine of the villages we visited went on as planned. However, the challenge that Elissar and I faced in this 10th village was worth a thousand sessions of pre-planning. We could have retreated with the excuse that the kind of project we were conducting required literate participants. But we did not.
Why? Because the look in these women’s eyes said, “We want more.” As we sat down the first day and explained to these women why the planned project would not work for them, I did not see despair or disappointment. I saw a look that despite the challenges said, “Do something for us; we want to learn.” And so, we did.
Watching these women working with the colored envelopes, papers and picture stickers made me realize that no one can place any barriers in front of determination – even if one of those barriers happens to be illiteracy.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 24/08/2011
-Lama Zeinoun Tabet lives in Beirut, Lebanon, and wrote this commentary for the 1001 Stories of Common Ground Positive Change in Action competition. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service(

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