This ethnographic study employs a gender perspective to understand the motivations of eight women literacy learners participating in a village-based functional literacy programme in rural North-eastern Thailand. Field research took place over six months of periodic residence in a North-eastern Thai village, and involved participant observation, individual interviews and informal focus groups. An analysis of the women's reproductive, productive and community roles, and their practical and strategic gender needs (Moser 1993) is used to frame findings on the women's participation in the literacy programme. In brief, although the women valued educational programmes that reduced the burden of their reproductive labour, offered income-generating opportunities in their productive roles and supported their leadership roles in the community, the village literacy programme had limited effect in addressing these practical gender needs. However, because a patriarchal ideology and Buddhist institutions had denied the women access to schooling as children, they now saw the literacy programme as both a symbolic return to school and a collective women's space to advocate for more desirable adult educational programmes. In these ways, the programme addressed their strategic gender needs. The study argues that a gender lens is critical in explaining women's participation in literacy programmes and in designing literacy education for development.