Seventy per cent of the indigenous women in Bolivia's Chuquisaca and Potosi departments are illiterate. Women in this poor rural region also suffer the country's highest maternal mortality rates.
An innovative UNFPA-supported project addresses both issues, by providing simultaneous literacy training in the indigenous Quechua language and in Spanish along with information on reproductive health, health insurance and safe motherhood.
Between 1999 and 2002, over 100,000 women and men learned to read and write. A technical team trained more than 100 trainers, who in turn trained 3,500 literacy teachers. Each taught classes of 25 people three times a week for eight months. Men and women met separately, to ensure that all could speak freely.
"I have learned how to keep myself and my house clean, how to plan with my husband how many children we are going to have, to have a good pregnancy check-up and to go to the health centre for checkups," said one participant. "I wish we had been taught this before so we wouldn't have had so many children."
The project, implemented by the Vice Ministry of Alternative Education and funded by the United Nations Foundation, was promoted through local events, radio, and community groups. Activities were coordinated with local NGOs. In 2000, it was awarded UNESCO's Malcolm Adiseshiah Literacy Prize.
Participants have learned about the availability of lifesaving health services. In one project area, the number of attended deliveries doubled in two years as a result.
"In the past, we didn't know about these things," said Modesta Hinojosa. "We walked around with our big bellies herding the sheep, planting with our husbands, carrying the babies. There weren't any health centres, the women died and nobody said anything. Thank God we are now better informed and we will look after our health better."