Mariam, a literacy teacher in a poor Methodist village near Multan in Pakistan, says her life was aimless before she learned to read and write.
Now she loves the discipline of teaching other women to read, and her teacher’s salary has improved her financial situation.
A regular churchgoer from her childhood, Mariam encourages the women of the village to be educated by telling them their lives will be better.
“When you go out you won’t be bluffed, you will be not cheated,” she says.
I tell them that once they can read, they can read the Bible and that will bring a big change in their lives. They will be a better person.”
Sitting in the courtyard of a mud brick house in the village, with a goat tethered under a tree, Mariam says the many illiterate women in the village used to feel that education was of no importance.
“But some were impressed to see the women in the first graduating class reading Bibles and wearing nice clothes, so now they want to join them,” she says.
Mariam says the main problem is keeping the women motivated to study in the heat and stopping them dropping out of class.
“Many women work in the cotton fields, so in the cotton-picking season numbers go down,” she says.
“There are so many problems because they also have to work in the home and they have to feed the animals as well.”
To get around this difficulty, Mariam and the other teachers decided to be flexible in scheduling the classes.
“First we had a fixed time – the class would be held from 2pm to 4pm or from 4pm to 6pm. Now the teachers compromise with the pupils. We ask, ‘At which time will you be free?’ And we teach them then.”
This Bible-based literacy course is called the Beacon of Light project because the light of education spreads far and wide into the woman’s extended family and her community.
Mrs Jarmila, the pastor’s wife, says the Adult Literacy courses have opened many women’s eyes to the value of education. Now some are so eager to send their children to school that they have sold their precious gold rings to pay the fees.
“If a woman is educated her family will be successful. Education is like a bouquet of flowers which brings fragrance to the whole family,” she says.
“Uneducated women fight too much. If they are educated it brings a different and more positive approach in thinking.
“On the practical side, they can use the ATM machine and easily draw out money.
“The first school is the mother’s lap, so it’s very important that to properly train a child her mother needs to be educated.”
Anthony Lamuel, general secretary of Pakistan Bible Society, says that as well as teaching women about God, the programme is also promoting cordial relationships between different faith groups.
“The opportunities are wonderful: in some areas we have classes where some Hindu women are joining and there are a few examples where Muslims also join. I think that’s a lovely way in which they can interact respectfully with each other.”
Importantly, it is helping women make a bigger contribution in a society that is heavily male-dominated.
“Fifty-two per cent of the population are women and I think once they are literate it will make a big difference in their whole psyche and their contribution to the community, in their own family, in the society, in church life.
“I know examples where literate women are reading biblical texts in a church service, so I think a very important role is being played through the literacy project.”
Anthony says that with the funds raised from Bible Society Australia’s summer appeal he would like to respond to requests from Baluchistan province, a very poor, thinly populated area, to extend the literacy programme there.
“There is still a lot of demand for us to do classes in other areas. We have a request for about 22 centres in Baluchistan, so the money will help us to reach more women. Lots of other churches are asking in the Peshawar diocese, a frontier province bordered with Afghanistan.
“So whatever funding comes will be able to provide us with more education, more literacy for more women in more parts of Pakistan.”