Empowering women in Senegal with numbers

Elisabeth Gerger
SIL Africa





 The impact of literacy skills on the lives of adults is universally acknowledged. Sadly, the same cannot be said of numeracy. It is often left in the shadows, like a kind of poor cousin. This article is all about how numeracy skills can affect the everyday lives of women in Senegal.

While there are some illiterate women with amazing mental numeracy skills, many others know very little. I have often been shocked to see how many market vendors in my town in the south of Senegal are unable to correctly calculate how much change they should give me. These observations as well as requests from women who have participated in literacy projects which I coordinated led to the decision to develop a numeracy programme.

Following research into traditional numeracy practices of an ethnic group in the region, I developed a numeracy programme for women, based on their traditional practices and bridging to new ones. Together with the highly-motivated staff of three local literacy partner organisations, the Pëpántar Manjaku, AMOJ and Sempe Kaloon associations, and an excellent teacher trainer, we piloted the programme in three languages Manjaku, Joola-Fonyi and Karon from 2015–2017.

Making counting count

The goal of the numeracy pilot programme was to encourage the women to practice their reading and writing skills and improve their acuity in numeracy in order to be better equipped to manage their income-generating activities and family finances. Research has shown that reading and writing often take place in the context of market situations and keeping records (Maddox 2001), and “it has been argued that numeracy rather than literacy makes a more relevant entry point for adults” (Rogers 2005: 5). I share this opinion.

During several years of preparation, we developed a mathematical vocabulary list, a scripted teacher’s guide and a learner’s manual with exercises in each of the three languages. The R.C. Maagdenhuis Foundation, based in Amsterdam, funded a pilot programme from 2015–2017 with six classes, two for each language group. Most of the classes were held in the south of Senegal: two classes in Joola-Fonyi in the villages of Baïla and Boutégol and two more in Manjaku in the villages of Toniataba and Djidinky, while there were two Karon-language classes in the villages of Dombondir, in Senegal, and in Darsilami in the neighbouring Gambia.

The conversion challenge

The curriculum included topics such as reinforcing mental arithmetic skills, the four written operations (addition, substraction, multiplication, division), estimation, measurement of length, weight and capacity, as well as how to use a calculator and managing small businesses. Establishing a budget, writing income/expenditure lists and calculating profit were also part of the programme. The conversion of money is a challenge in our West African context: The denominator of money in French is “franc CFA”, but the denominator in the local languages is based on the 5 F CFA coin, with 5 F CFA equalling 1 “ékori” (in Joola-Fonyi). Many women have problems when it comes to calculating money, so we used plastic money to practise with.

Some lessons served to raise awareness of various issues: how to plan and save for the expenses at the beginning of the school year or for an important event, or how to reduce ‘unnecessary’ spending, for example by writing an SMS instead of making a phone call. The women learned about the importance of keeping business and personal money separate, and of always putting working capital aside in order to be able to buy new stock when the old is exhausted. They also discussed “tontines” (savings groups) and borrowing money.

“Many of the participants were not able to express themselves in French, the official language of Senegal.”

With exercises taken as much from daily life as possible, the women analysed problems and applied their skills and knowledge to various situations. They were encouraged to reason aloud in order to explain their strategy for solving a problem, for example a mental calculation. Reading traditional riddles, talking about traditional ways of measuring length or capacity, were ways of basing the course on knowledge that the women brought to the classroom, thus attaching importance to their cultures and languages. Creativity was part of the programme, through activities such as composing and singing songs, discussing pictures and playing skits of market scenes. Working together and helping each other reflected traditional values.

We had planned to link numeracy teaching and learning to an income-generating project, for example a garden project, but we were not able to find an organisation to fund and manage this component.

Speaking the language

Many of the participants were not able to express themselves in French, the official language of Senegal. Since instruction and learning took place in their own language, they were able to understand, learn from and contribute to the discussions.

126 women started the course, and 110 completed it. The participants attended an average of 86 % of the sessions. This suggests that the course met their perceived needs. We tested the women on what they knew and their ability to calculate correctly at the beginning of the programme. Then they took the same test after the end of the first and second year. The results of the evaluations were skewed because the testers were not able to prevent the women from helping each other. Moreover, not all the women took part in the evaluations. Nevertheless, the results showed a marked improvement, from an average of 34 % before the beginning of classes to 53 % at the end of the second year.

To understand the deeper effects, we must look at testimonies from the participants, as related by the literacy teachers during the in-service training sessions and by the women themselves during my class visits.

Many women said that that they were better able to give correct change. Some said that children would not be able to trick them anymore. Several women commented on the usefulness of the calculators, especially when there were many clients or several numbers to add. Some mentioned the usefulness of learning the difference between working capital and profit, and the importance of putting money aside to enable them to buy new stock. A vendor of palm wine found the lesson on liquid measurements helpful. Several women said that they were glad they had acquired estimation skills in the context of money.

We encouraged each class to have a “tontine”. This practice of saving money regularly is common with women’s groups. Each woman pays a regular contribution for a certain time period. One of the numeracy classes used the amount saved over the course of the year to buy gardening tools that they would rent out for a small fee. Other groups were interested in getting in touch with a micro-credit organisation in order to obtain a loan that would provide them with capital. Some women appreciated learning about bank accounts and taking a loan from a financial institution.

A manjak teacher helps a participant solve problems of multiplying with 10, 100 and 1000,
© Elisabeth Gerger

The impact on development

Low levels of literacy are one of the barriers that hinder development in the sub-Saharan region (Moore 2015; UNESCO 2012). Insufficient use of local languages in instruction is considered one possible reason for low literacy (UNESCO 2017). Cognitive skills such as literacy and numeracy are foundational skills, and form a basis for acquiring more job-specific knowledge and skills. They are important on a personal level in order to manage one’s business better or to be more eligible for a well-paid job. They are essential on a national level too. “Low skills reduce labour force productivity and make investment less attractive, decreasing the transfer of technology and ‘know-how’ from high-income countries. Low skills also perpetuate poverty and inequality because the private sector can’t flourish in a country that doesn’t have a skilled workforce to sustain it.” (World Bank 2017).

While it is difficult (and too early) to show concrete results in terms of how the programme contributed to development in the long term in the lives of these teachers, women and families, I would like to suggest two main points.

“The women are now better equipped to make informed choices, based on written information and group discussions.”

1. The programme contributed to development by in­creasing the women’s “choices, capabilities and freedoms” (Sen 1999).

The programme enabled women belonging to minority groups (and their teachers!) to improve their reading, writing and arithmetic skills (the three Rs), as well as their financial literacy or numeracy. Equal distribution of improvements is an important aspect of development according to Sen (1999), and working with minority groups helps advance towards this goal.


The women are now better equipped to make informed choices, based on written information and group discussions. They have various strategies for performing arithmetic tasks – mentally, with a calculator, or in writing. They know what questions to ask when considering opening a bank account. The women learned new ways of managing money, and now have the option of putting it into practice. Often, there are no easy solutions given the local context. For example, many women have to continually relaunch their businesses with borrowed money because they do not retain any working capital. The teachers compared putting working capital aside to keeping one’s cooking pot or gardening tools, which a woman would not think of selling. But many women said that poverty forces them to spend most of their income straight away. Many of them did not keep personal money and business money separate for similar reasons. Saving might be difficult, as there are always many needs of the extended family to address. One of the cultural values and strengths of Senegalese society is inter-dependence and helping other family members. The women face many challenges in this age of globalisation, with changing traditions and values, increased living expenses and the growing in­fluence of money and materialism. The programme raised their awareness of different options, and they might decide to change over time.


The women learned new skills such as calculating with various strategies, estimation, using international measurements of length, weight and capacity. They were now able to manage their finances better, for example by giving their customers the correct change. Their understanding of various aspects of financial management has increased. Through group discussions, they learned to analyse problems related to numerical challenges, to reason and to apply their skills to different situations.


Besides freedom of choice, the women now enjoy other freedoms as well. Some expressed their contentment about being able to manage their finances better and not depend on others to read their bank statements. They appreciated not being cheated as easily any more. Some enjoyed greater respect as a result of their increased capabilities. For example, one husband allowed his wife to work in his shop. Almost all the women were keen to buy a calculator at a subsidised price. This allowed them to work more effectively and (hopefully) to make fewer errors. Some women appreciated the fact that they were now like others to whom they had previously looked up.

The women work in pairs solving problems in their workbook, © Elisabeth Gerger

Most women were part of a women’s association. The participants in the literacy and numeracy programme are now more likely to obtain posts as secretaries, accountants or presidents within these structures, since they are better able to read, write and do sums. Several women mentioned the fact that they were now able to help their children with their maths homework. They are better equipped to play an active role in their children’s education. This shows that the benefits of the programme have extended beyond numeracy skills pure and simple.

Sen’s “choices, capabilities and freedoms” are linked to respect, self-esteem and empowerment. In my view, the programme enabled women to develop their skills, enlarge their understanding and “face the world with purpose and pride” (International Bureau of Education 1990, quoted in Indabawa & Mpofu 2006: 9).

2. The programme provided a basis for economic ­progress for the women.

The programme helped the women make fewer mistakes, which should increase their income. They understand the difference between the two money denominators – franc CFA and ékori – and know that they have to multiply/divide by 5 when converting between the two.

Since the numeracy programme placed a strong emphasis on financial management, the women will be better able to manage their small businesses. They now have a better understanding of how to calculate their profit. They can prepare a budget, and keep track of income and expenditure.

If the women’s groups are more efficient in managing their funds, they will have more funds available, which could then be either spent or invested wisely.

Building a momentum

In my view, the literacy and numeracy programme in three local languages provided a strong basis for the women’s continued personal and economic development. It built on their strengths – their language skills, their traditional values and uses of numeracy. The women practised reasoning, analysing and applying information to other situations. They learned new numeracy skills, with examples relevant to their daily lives, as well as acquiring basic financial management skills. According to the testimonies of several women, this enabled them to manage their businesses better. They have more information and knowledge to make choices that will benefit them and their families and communities. They take decisions on a self-determined basis, deciding how they wish to develop, where and when they are willing to change, whether and if so how to integrate Western practices and values into their Senegalese worldview.

The women are now better equipped to play a meaningful role in other training programmes, for example in the context of income-generating projects or Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). This would also encourage them to keep putting into practice what they have learned, and help them to overcome the challenges they are facing.


Indabawa, S. and Mpofu, S. (2006): African perspectives on adult learning: The social context of adult learning in Africa. Hamburg and Cape Town: UNESCO Institute for Education and Pearson Education South Africa.

Maddox, B. (2001): Literacy and the market: The economic uses of ­literacy among the peasantry in North-West Bangladesh. In: Street, B. (ed.): Literacy and Development: Ethnographic perspectives. London: Routledge.

Moore, K. (2015): Fostering economic opportunities for youth in Africa: a comprehensive approach. In: Enterprise Development & Microfinance (EDM), 26(2), 195-209. DOI: 10.3362/1755-1986.2015.017.

Rogers, A. (2005): Training adult literacy educators in developing ­countries. Background paper prepared for the Education for All Global ­Monitoring Report 2006 Literacy for Life. Paris: UNESCO. https://bit.ly/2wanZG1

Sen, A. (1999): Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The World Bank (2017): Skills Development. https://bit.ly/2qcQR94
UNESCO (2012): EFA Global Monitoring Report 2012 – Youth and Skills: Putting Education to Work. Paris: UNESCO. https://bit.ly/1lfJOI6

UNESCO (2017): Global Education Monitoring Report 2017/8. Accountability in Education: Meeting our commitments. Paris: UNESCO. https://bit.ly/2zzbErU

About the author

Elisabeth Gerger works as a literacy and education consultant with SIL Africa. She has lived in Senegal since 2003 and coordinated literacy activities in more than ten local languages. Together with three Senegalese partner organisations, she developed and organised a numeracy pilot programme for women from 2015–2017 in three local languages.


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