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A young girl helps her mother with her literacy homework.

A child helps her mother with her literacy homework.

Literacy empowers

UMD prof helps her homeland

By Pauline Oo

From M, Winter 2007

If you're reading this, chances are you can also understand numbers and spell. Lucky you. With these basic skills, you can hop on a bus and arrive at the correct destination, pay your electric bill, and read the ingredient labels on the food you buy.

Literacy empowers.

In Turkey, the male literacy rate is 95.7 percent and females lag behind at 81.1 percent. But the women in Turkey are becoming more literate and self-sufficient, thanks in part to the efforts of Aydin Durgunoglu. The University of Minnesota, Duluth, psychology professor helped develop and improve a literacy program for the Turkish Mother-Child Education Foundation. The foundation recently won one of two UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prizes, not only for contributing to literacy but also for increasing women's self-confidence, independence, and participation in decision-making processes.

"We target women with very low levels of literacy or who have not gone to school," says Durgunoglu, speaking of the Functional Adult Literacy Program she helped create in 1995, "not because they have cognitive problems, but because their fathers didn't let them go to school or they were too poor or they lived too far from a school. In the rural areas, having no or low literacy is okay; they can survive. But when they [move] to the big city--where they have to take a bus or go to a hospital--that's when they run into difficulties."

In Turkey, the male literacy rate is 95.7 percent, and females lag behind at 81.1 percent.

In the program's courses, trained volunteers teach literacy skills, such as reading and listening comprehension, spelling, and recognizing numerals, and "they make it very relevant for everyday life," says Durgunoglu, who specializes in adult and child literacy development and bilingual cognition. In addition to using the three textbooks she helped write, the volunteers use reading material related to citizen rights, consumer rights, and reproductive health with their 35- to 70-year-old students.

"Although we have reached approximately 65,000 women in about 20 provinces across Turkey, this is still a drop in the bucket," says Durgunoglu, considering that her homeland has 81 provinces and more than 7 million adults--mostly women--who are illiterate.

This past summer, Durgunoglu, who has lived in Duluth the last 13 years, returned to Turkey to oversee the adaptation of the literacy program so it could be broadcast on national television.

"We were trying to make it entertaining but still have a lot of content related to teaching literacy and women's empowerment," she says. Early evaluations indicate that the TV program is making a difference. Durgunoglu will continue her work to improve the lives of Turkish women.