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Celebrate Solutions: Improving Literacy and Driving Change Through SMS Text Messaging

March 20, 2013

Using cell phones and text-message based literacy and numeracy training is helping Senegalese girls and women dramatically improve their ability to communicate with each other and their communities, according to an evaluation of a pilot program by Dakar, Senegal-based NGO Tostan.

Tostan’s "Community Empowerment Program" is an award-winning, three-year nonformal education program that provides community wide trainings to help villagers lead social change projects within their communities. As part of the CEP program, Tostan offers a 150-hour cellphone literacy course--called Mobile Phone for Literacy and Empowerment--in which participants in 20 villages received 16 lessons on how to use cell phones, build literacy and numeracy skills, and use text messaging as a means to practice and learn.

Although the use of mobile phones in rural areas in Senegal is widespread, a very low percentage of girls and women have access to mobile phones. In addition, sending SMS and accessing the mobile phone is much less common particularly by girls and women because of poor or no literacy skills. For example, a baseline survey conducted as part of an evaluation of the literacy component of the CEP program found only one in 8 female respondents owned a cell phone (less than one-half the rate of men) and more than 40 percent had no literacy or numeracy skills (almost double the rate for men).

However, helping girls and women improve the ability to communicate through mobile technology is a critical step toward realizing gender equality--and the Tostan literacy program appears to do just that.

A follow-up survey with participants across all villages showed that cell phone usage and the ability to communicate via text messages both increased. Cell phone use rose to a nearly universal level (98%), from 58% at the baseline. In addition, there was a drastic improvement across the reading ability of all participants--women, men, girls, and boys (65 percent compared to 8 percent before the program).

Girls and women participating in the program greatly improved literacy and numeracy skills. Before the program, nearly 42 percent of women and 44 percent of girls reported having no literacy or numeracy skills, compared to 21 percent and 17 percent, respectively, after. More than 30 percent of girls and women rated their skills as high after the program compared to only 12 percent of women and 8 percent of girls before.

Several of the villages also participated in SMS-based community forums in which participants could send messages to an entire group. Although usage of these messaging networks dropped sharply after the literacy program ended, anecdotal examples suggest that this connectivity helped advance the rights of girls and women. In one village, Dieynabou Baldé–a woman with disabilities--learned to read, write, and send text messages through the program, and now uses the SMS community forum to arrange transportation to community events.

How you can help:
Tostan is currently raising $12,000 on Catapult to provide $25, $40, or $50 grants to women participating in Community Empowerment Programs capital to start their own businesses. Get involved and help raise funds. This project is eligible for matching funds from Johnson & Johnson -- give today and make your giving go further!

View more than 70 other solutions to improve the lives of women and girls on Catapult.

Originally published on Women Deliver's blog.

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