The World in a Signature

“It’s about a world of knowledge opening up for you.”

– Rajani Menon

February 2019

What’s in a signature?  We scribble out our name without giving it a thought. We sign for this and we sign for that. And sometimes we just initial a box to show we have read it.

But as Kanti Devi, a 45 year old woman from the village of Ratanpur, signs her name, the pen moves across the paper like a paintbrush.  With that one signature, something Kanti has only recently learned to do with the help of her Amrita SeRVe village coordinator Urmila, she is making a statement not only to herself, but to her children and future grandchildren.

Whereas Kanti had previously been reticent to attend parent/teacher meetings, these days she fully embraces them. “I’m not embarrassed anymore,” she says, “ because I can sign my name on any documents. My children can see me signing my name, and this will make them feel encouraged about their lives.”

Others, however, are not so positive. “I am so old.  What is the use?” they ask.

Megha S Gopi, Amrita SeRVe zonal coordinator for southern India, notes that while cell phones have made it even to villages that can’t be found on Google, there are villagers who can neither read nor write.

Indeed, in a country where 71% of the rural population is literate, there are still some places, especially tribal settlements, where the rate of illiteracy can even exceed 50%.  Amrita SeRVe has witnessed many cases where illiterate villagers were reluctant to visit the nearby Primary Health Centre (PHC) for free medical services or were unable to apply for health insurance, social security, and pensions because they could not read or write.

Creating literacy classes, however, can be challenging. “It is difficult to meet the villagers since they are working on tea and cardamom plantations from 8 – 4:30 each day,” Megha says. Moreover, despite the enormous impact the ability to read and write can have on life, “the idea that you can improve your life situation through education is simply not there.”

Rajani Menon, director of Jan Shikshan Sansthan Idukki (the Institute for People’s Education), a central government project sponsored by the Skill Ministry and implemented by the MA Math, has worked with tribal people in Idukki for 15 years. She notes that women became motivated to learn to read and write only when a curriculum was designed based on the vocation they were learning.

Work-related incentives may explain why SHG women, who need to sign their name for business purposes and require literacy for financial transitions, are among the most motivated to become literate.  However, although the AmritaSREE bylaws state that SHGs must maintain their own records, many members substitute thumb impressions for authentic signatures.

Aside from a lack of time because of long work days in the field, cooking and cleaning for their families, and taking care of children, there is another challenge illiterate villagers face. While learning to write letters may seem natural for first and second standard children, whose fingers are young and nimble, for those three or four decades older, the process can be long and arduous.

Amrita SeRVe zonal coordinators have observed that it can even take 4 – 5 classes just to learn to write their name. Rajani explains that “their hands have become rough and callused from work, and it is difficult to use the gentle pressure and finger movements needed.”

Despite these challenges, Rajani feels that in the tribal communities, it is the older women who are the most motivated and strongest.  “They are respected and the younger women listen to them,” she says.  All of this adds weight to the accomplishment of older women learning to sign their names. For the influence upon the literacy rate and level of education of younger generations is most likely closely linked.

“We need to work really hard to gain trust and influence,” Megha adds. “If they do become literate, opportunities for themselves and their children will be different. If the children can get educated through the10th standard, they will be eligible for government jobs and their lives will change.”

In the village of Ratanpur, Kanti Devi’s children watch as she signs her name on a school document. With this signature, their entire sense of life and their future in this life has been  irrevocably altered. For what is contained in a signature is far greater than the sum of the letters. Inherent in a signature is a sense of self, a sense of “me” as a person unique from all “others, one who can gain knowledge and interact with the world within and outside of the village.

So this is where we start. With a signature. A signature that contains the seed of literacy. Literacy that opens the door to knowledge. Knowledge that opens the door to opportunity.

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