St Augustin — Marie Louise, 46, from the village of Namakia-Ankilibe, about one hour's drive south of Toliara, in arid southwestern Madagascar, never saw the inside of a classroom as a child.
"My mother died when I was two years old and my uncle took care of us, but he never sent my two sisters and I to school. There wasn't one in the village anyway," she recalls.
Although being illiterate was considered normal in her village, Marie Louise found it a hindrance. "When the mailman brought letters we had to walk to the town and pay someone to read the letters to us. Also, the president of the fokotany (municipality) sometimes asked us to sign forms, and we didn't know what it was we were signing."
Now she is among about 100 villagers in her area enrolled in an adult literacy programme. Every afternoon they come together in a community garden where they have lessons by teachers provided by a local NGO.
Marie Louise plans to take the primary school exam and then go on to a secondary school. "I want to learn a trade, become a vendor or a tailor later on," she says.
She also plans to vote in the presidential elections on 25 October. "When I was younger, we were told to vote for President Didier Ratsiraka (Madagascar's president from 1975 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 2002)," she told IRIN.
"I felt manipulated and preferred not to vote at all. Now that I can read and write, I will listen to the speeches of the candidates on the radio and make up my own mind."
High rates of illiteracy
According to figures from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), more than 40 percent of women over the age of 15 are illiterate in Madagascar. Female literacy is even lower in the area where Marie Louise lives. Around Toliara, capital of the Atsimo-Andrefana region, UNDP puts the rate of illiteracy as high as 70 percent.
"People in this region have always been illiterate. They used to think it wasn't a problem, but now they see they are not developing because of this," Louisette Ranorovololona, the programme officer at UNDP, told IRIN. "We included the literacy programme into our poverty reduction strategy, since there will be no economic progress if people can't read or write, or do simple sums."
The UNDP-funded programme has developed an intensive course for adult learners to achieve functional literacy. Participants are taught the skills they need for their particular livelihoods - vendors and fishermen are taught simple arithmetic, while potential waitresses are taught to read menus and do simple sums, and learn how to talk to customers.
The village where Marie Louise lives is located in a unique eco-region known as the spiny forest. Tourist resorts have sprung up here in the last decade and many villagers now have jobs working in the hotels and restaurants.
As most of these jobs demand literacy and numeracy, and the necessary skills to interact with customers, Marie Louise was previously limited to the lower-paying job of washing clothes for hotel guests.
"People are now very motivated to be part of these classes," said teacher Jama Leonzin Soamirina, who works for FFF Malagasy Mahomby, the local NGO that UNDP funds to implement the programme. "We went to the villages and asked them if they wanted these lessons, and they were very enthusiastic."
Government efforts interrupted
The Malagasy government drafted a national adult education policy in 2003, and a national strategy in 2008, after it found that around 27 percent of 10 million Malagasy over the age of 15 could not read, write or do simple calculations.
The previous government listed adult literacy as one of the nation's greatest challenges in a national poverty reduction plan it drafted in 2006, but the national plan was never implemented.
Madagascar plunged into a political crisis in 2009, when the current transitional president, Andry Rajoelina, seized power in a military coup. The international community imposed sanctions banning donor support to government departments.
As a result, rather than supporting the Ministry of Education to carry out a nationwide literacy programme, UNDP has been working with an NGO in only two of the worst affected communes in the south of the country. In the past two years, the joint UNDP-NGO effort has managed to educate 741 people, of whom 340 were women - a drop in the ocean in this region of over a million people.
The Ministry of Education spends just 0.46 % of its budget on adult education, according to ministry figures. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and a few private NGOs also have relatively small-scale programmes to teach adults, but it is unlikely that Madagascar will make significant progress on reducing illiteracy rates in the near future.
Instead, illiteracy is likely to increase further, as the impact of sanctions spreads into Madagascar's regular school system. UNICEF figures estimate that a total of 1.5 million children are out of school, while only three in 10 children who are enrolled pass their final exam.
"It's all because of increased poverty. People can't afford to educate their children - a situation which has become worse because of the crisis. In the south, the parents have to cope with insecurity, so they won't let their children walk far to go to school," UNDP's Ranorovololona of told IRIN.
The adults in the literacy programmes are more likely to understand the need to educate their children. Marie Louise says her seven children now go to a new school five kilometres away from her village. "Even though I just separated from my husband and have very little money, I manage to make them study."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]