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Author: Gisele Maynard-Tucker

Center for the Study of Women, UCLA


Gender inequalities, violence between partners, sexual violence on campus, along with the lack of opportunities for women to reach high professional positions except for a privileged few, make me think of the ethnic societies I have been in contact for many years. I have seen that women are universally oppressed by persistent colonial and patriarchal inheritances.  In many societies girls are not sent to school but boys are. Illiteracy, a topic also debated in the US where there are 32 million people who cannot read and write, (US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy 2013). Worldwide there are 493 million illiterate women (The Guardian, June 2014).


Over the past two years I have written a book “Rural Women’s Sexuality, Reproductive Health and Illiteracy: A Critical Perspective on Development.” In the book I wanted to give the reader a glance at the impact of illiteracy on women’s lives. The book discusses many issues that rural women are confronted with, such as their lack of power, gender inequalities, sexual behavior and domestic violence. In addition the book also reports on the health care delivery of the health systems and the role of donors and governments.


This essay presents some summarizations of the book that describe some of my experiences and what I learned about women’s sexual behavior while living in a very repressed environment. Women were controlled by men through violence and by their communities through gossip.

First, I introduce the Quechua Indian women living in a small village in the Peruvian Andes. In describing their routine life I show women’s constraints and the strategies they use to survive in a culturally changing world. Men migrate frequently for wage labor although they have authority over women through patriarchy and because they represented economic security and status.


I also describe women’s cultural customs, their acceptance of gender inequalities and the violence that occurred frequently between partners. In 1986, it was the first time that modern contraception was introduced in the village. Many women wanted to control their fertility because they reproduced every 18 months on average but they were afraid of the side effects of the methods. This fear was heightened by the exaggerated and false gossip spread by other villagers. Conversely, women also thought that their fertility was an asset that could be used to tie a man to them.


This study was followed by a long- term consultancy that lasted a year and half in Haiti for an international NGO.  Working in Haiti taught me about development, poverty, corruption, political assassination, and the dangers of working in a third world country where the police were not equipped to restrain the angry populace. 

My life in Haiti was part James Bond and part researcher/evaluator.

I lived in Haiti during the election of Aristite and it was a tumultuous year because of political opposition characterized by gun fights in the streets.  I was evaluating the medical facilities that delivered family planning services in the private sector.

Every day was an adventure and I gained much experience dealing with lack of resources, corruption and poorly trained medical staff. When I left Haiti, I decided to work for short- term consultancies (usually 3-4 weeks or less). My work was diversified and I visited many countries and evaluated many programs. Each time I had to learn the customs and the culture of the new country and use my anthropological background to make suggestions for improving the programs which were submitted to the Ministry of Health.


The book presents several of these evaluation/studies and also describes the life of sex workers in Senegal and Madagascar who were not literate and had no job skills.    Some of the women had children and partners who did not know about their activities, others had partners who knew. The female sex workers would recruit clients in bars or on the streets and many did not practice safe sex or use contraceptive methods leading to pregnancy and abortions. The nonuse of condoms was based on the clients’ preference and monetary incentives not to use them. The nonuse of contraceptive methods was due to ignorance about the methods and the village gossip about the side effects.


In India, the Devadasis in the State of Karnataka are recruited at a young age and sex work is associated with a cult of deities including  the Godess Yellamma . Originally,  sex work was a duty performed in the temple by the girls dedicated to the Goddess, but currently sex work is a source of income and is practiced in different locations outside the temple.


In most countries the health systems and the Ministries of Health were  overwhelmed by a huge bureaucracy and a lack of organization. Everywhere, I worked, medical staff were disappointed and did not enjoy their work because they were overworked, underpaid and had infrequent training. Consequently, they did not treat patients with patience and compassion especially the rural populations. This was an important barrier for patients, because they often chose no to visit medical facilities, particularly in the case of trauma.


Women’s illiteracy is a profound problem in developing and developed countries.  Modern medicine is difficult to understand if one is educated and it is impossible to comprehend for illiterate people.  For instance, how does a mosquito transmit malaria? Why they must cut down the bushes where the mosquitoes live next to their houses? Why they must follow the drug regimen for HIV treatment?

Promoters are taught to give explanations but very few patients understand the information because of dialect differences, illiteracy and because promoters are not well trained.


Development agencies are not always aware of women’s level of illiteracy and have not yet attempted to produce programs geared toward illiterate women.  In the book, I posit that the improvement of the programs is related to civic and social change instituted by the governance and supported by international agencies. Since the 1970s, the literature has reported that some years of schooling changed women’s behavior toward the use of contraception and also betters the health of the children. Literacy is an important tool to change the world, to bring more understanding between nations, religions and also between the sexes. Girls and women in the world must not be left behind.




Brown, David, A Mother’s Education has a Huge Effect on a Child’s Health’ Washington Post September 16, 2010.

www.washingtonpoast.com …children and youth


Kelleher, Fatimah. The literacy Injustice: 493 Million Women Still Can’t Read

The Guardian, September 8, 2014.



Levine Robert A, Sarah Levine, Beatrice Schnell Anzola, Meredith Rowe and Emily Dexter, Literacy and Mothering: How Women’s Schooling change the Lives of the World’s Children. New York, Oxford University Press. (2012).



US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy.

The US Illiteracy Rate has not Changed in 10 Years. The Huffington Post , September 2013.

 www.hunffingtonpost.com/ …/illiteracy-rate_n_38803   


For the past 25 years I evaluated programs in various developing countries; Africa, India, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. My work focused on family planning, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention. 

To order Rural Women's Sexuality, Reproductive Health, and Illiteracy from Lexington Books, please visit:


Gisele Maynard-Tucker

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