Cell Phones Help Pakistani Women Learn To Read In a small Pakistani village, a group of young women takes a step toward the future, by learning to read. And their class relies on cell phones, especially text messages that give them lessons in reading and writing. It's a stop along the Grand Trunk Road that NPR's Madhulika Sikka won't soon forget.
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Steve Inskeep reports

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Cell Phones Help Pakistani Women Learn To Read

Steve Inskeep reports

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Our next destination along South Asia's Grand Trunk Road takes some time to reach. Pull off the four-lane highway in Pakistan, take a side road that grows narrow and bumpy. At the village of Tanta Kulkra(ph), you leave the car behind. You walk a brick lane too narrow to drive. Brick houses press in on both sides.

Although it's a pleasant walk - we hear music and children playing - the world seems to grow smaller with every step. We squeeze into a tiny room.

Well, thank you for welcoming us into your home.

Ms. FARZANA GULZAR: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Farzana Gulzar lives here. She's covered with a brilliant fuchsia scarf - a dupatta - which South Asian women drape around their hair and shoulders.

How old are you, Farzana?

Ms. GULZAR: (Through translator) Twenty-four.

INSKEEP: Twenty-four. And are you from this village?

Ms. GULZAR: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: She says yes.

She's been teaching kids in a local school since age 14. More recently, she taught the women who crowded into her bedroom to meet us. They're clutching certificates showing they finished an unusual class. A Pakistani charity organized it with the United Nations.

Farzana gives the women a crash course in reading. The charity provided a way to practice. It arranged for the women to buy cell phones at 20 percent of the retail price, and sent them home.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The women began receiving text messages to read and write down.

(Soundbite of beeping)

INSKEEP: OK. I seem to have received a message here.

Like the message Farzana sent to me.

Unidentified Woman (Translator): (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. GULZAR: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Which means?

Ms. GULZAR: The god has his power to forgive your sins. Doesn't matter how big it is.

INSKEEP: Other messages give health advice, like brush your teeth twice a day or wash your hands before eating.

The text messages do not provide the broadest education, but the women receive them at home. That's important since many Muslim families keep their girls away from school. Many poor families can't afford it, anyway.

A woman named Magbool(ph) never attended school, which bothered her as an adult.

MAGBOOL: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: OK. She is saying that - my family used to make fun of me.

INSKEEP: Why?

MAGBOOL: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: She said, I'm really fond of having some sort of education and my family used to make fun of me, that - at this time, now, you are going to school?

INSKEEP: The family asked if she was putting on airs.

Who do we suppose is the youngest person here?

A 17-year-old moves forward. Her name is Kosar Gaffar Ahmed(ph). She's able to write it down in my notebook. Her father was suspicious of this class so the teacher, Farzana, intervened.

Ms. KOSAR GAFFAR AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: OK. She went to her parents and said that, you know, there is no harm in this, in this the whole process. And they said that OK, you take responsibility, and we don't want our daughters to be spoiled to mobile.

INSKEEP: What does that mean, spoiled?

Unidentified Woman: It means - you know, through mobile, you can have a different means of entertainment, like songs, and you have an access to so many people out there. So the parents are a bit scared of it.

INSKEEP: In the end, the chance for a cheap phone may motivate some families, like the family of Magbool. When the class was over, she didn't keep her phone for long.

MAGBOOL: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: She said that of course, the phones were smashed by the kids because they think you are quite old and you don't need a phone. And I am very happy that at least through this, I got to know how to write and read, and I don't care about the phone anymore.

INSKEEP: She knows she received at least a glimpse of the wider world.

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