AMMAN // The nine women sitting in a tiny classroom in an eastern Amman suburb are of different ages and backgrounds, yet they have one thing in common: they are all eager to learn how to read and write. The text books they are using are of primary school level and their teacher, Fatmeh al Okdeh, is helping them to learn about the importance of going to school. "Where is Khaled?" they read in their Arabic books. And flip the page to find out that he has gone to school. There are maths timetables on the wall, but that is too advanced for this group of women. "Most of those who come here do not know their alphabet. Some are school dropouts with poor learning abilities," said Ms al Okdeh. "But they are making progress." The literacy centre is one of 611 across the kingdom, the programme launched in the 1950s to bring down the illiteracy rate, which currently stands at 7.9 per cent. Jordan aims to cut the rate by another five per cent by 2015.
Four decades ago, only 33 per cent of Jordanians over the age of 15 were able to read and write. The literacy centres, mostly in schools or the offices of charitable organisations run by the ministry of social development, offer free education and provide all stationary and textbooks, costing the government about US$75,000 (Dh275,000) a year. "We hope that we will enable those whose ages do not allow them to go to school to study at home after they graduate from the illiteracy eradication centres and later pursue their education," Ahmad Rababah, an education ministry official in the department responsible for the literacy programmes, said. Although children are mandated by law to attend school until the 10th grade, or age 15, school dropouts - estimated at four in 1,000 last year - are common, often pressed by parents' cultural and traditional attitudes. "People, particularly in the rural and impoverished areas, are not aware of the importance of education. They prefer that their sons work or learn a profession that generates an income," said Mr Rababah.
Another problem is early marriages. Although the minimum age for marriage is 18, judges have the authority to seal marriage contracts for those who are younger. "There are girls, who at age 14 and 15 quit school in order to get married. That's a disaster," Mr Rababah said. Although the illiteracy rate has dropped dramatically in Jordan over the past two decades, a gender gap still persists. Four per cent of men are illiterate, while 11.6 per cent of Jordanian women cannot read or write, the latter figure down from 68 per cent in 1961, according to official statistics. While many adults are ashamed of their illiteracy, others are trying hard to conquer it; a majority of them are women. Of the 6,217 people enrolled in the literacy centres across the kingdom, 5,754 of them are women. The courses run five days a week for two-and-a-half hours each day. "I have always wanted to read the Quran," said Samia Kamal, 58, a mother of seven, when asked why she joined the literacy programme. "I could just about write my first name. Now, at least I will know how to read the road signs and know where the bus is heading to when I take one. It was really embarrassing when my children used to ask me to help them with their homework."
Others are driven by the regret of dropping out of school. Rana Abdul Fattah, 30, is Mrs Kamal's daughter-in-law. She said she was never keen on studying and dropped out of school when she was 12. Four years later she got married. "Before my marriage, my [future] father-in-law tried to convince me to go back to school, but I didn't listen to him. But now I would like to finish the Tawjihi", high school exam. Ms Fattah said she dropped out of school because she had trouble learning English. Now she hopes to study it at university. And, attitudes are changing. Raeda Hashem, 37, a mother-of-three, left school at age 12. Her eldest son, 15, is still studying. "Our parents did not let us finish school," she said. They didn't like girls going to school. They were unfair to us I would like to help my children study." While the literacy centres are helping people like Mrs Fattah to study and improve their quality of life, there is also some criticism. According to a 2007 study carried out by the ministry of education and the Amman office of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the teaching expertise at the centres is weak. Many teachers lacked proper training to teach illiterate adults, the study found. Textbooks, too, were outdated but the ministry has promised to provide students with updated versions for the next school year. For Alia, 16, who has never been to school, the literacy centre is giving her a chance to catch up. Her father had enrolled her in a centre for Quranic recitation. And while she could recite many of the verses, her reading and writing skills were weak. "My father doesn't like girls to go to school. As for my brothers, he lets them finish 10th grade and they work with him in the metal workshop. But he realised that he made a mistake. Now he wants us to learn how to read and write." It was the difficulties of learning English that forced Alia to drop out of school. Now she hopes to study the language at university. firstname.lastname@example.org