A blog by TMF team member Kaia Bint Savage
When I was younger, I was always an avid reader. I had bookshelves upon bookshelves at home (I even had a ladder to the top shelves in my bedroom) and ten times that in the library at school. I would devour each section hungrily – fiction, non-fiction, autobiographies… I loved looking at a shelf and noting that I’d read each book it held, remembering the stories tucked away between the pages and the adventure each one took me on. I was encouraged to read by both family and teachers and had the benefits highlighted; the more I read, the better my vocabulary became, I discovered more sources of inspiration (Hermione Granger is still my hero!) and it even helped me to develop stronger analytical skills.
Just the act of being able to read gives girls a chance in life.
A little over a year and a half ago, I had an experience that made me appreciate my bookish childhood more than I ever had before. I visited Kerala and Mumbai in India with TMF schools’ liaison, Greg Bint. We were on a fact finding mission, visiting schools and working with community and charity projects that The Maiden Factor supported. These projects focused on removing barriers so girls could access an education and one huge barrier that many girls face all around the world as a result of a lack of schooling is the inability to read and write.
Every girl deserves an education. To be unable to develop basic reading and writing skills puts a girl at a tremendous disadvantage – let alone the fact that she already is disadvantaged in life simply because she is female. The gap between illiterate men and women is massive. Nearly 500 million women around the world cannot read and write – ⅔ of all illiterate adults. This is very concerning, as the ability to read and write opens so many doors and opportunities that can not only help a woman provide for themselves and their family, but also supports the community in both a social and economic sense for future generations. When girls are able to access education, GDP rises. Child mortality rates decrease. Literate women are more likely to send their children (especially girls) to school, which helps to address inequality between genders. Just the act of being able to read gives girls a chance in life. With literacy skills, they are much more likely to become economically self-reliant and go on to fulfill their potential.
Greg and I were able to witness first hand the impact that supporting girls’ literacy skills can have during our time in Mumbai as we were invited to meet some of the children and teachers at Kasarvadavali Thane Municipal School that are benefitting from Room to Read’s programmes in India. Room to Read was one of our first partner charities that The Maiden Factor Foundation supported, so I was incredibly excited to see how the money that we had been raising impacted upon individuals’ lives, especially through their Literacy Programme. As reading is the foundation of all future learning, RTR’s Literacy Programme enables primary school children, especially girls with their Girls’ Education Programme, to become independent readers, focusing efforts on developing reading skills and the habit of reading among primary school children in government schools. In this school, Room to Read had built a library and filled it with a huge range of books for all reading levels and ages.
On arrival, we were welcomed by the fantastic teachers, as well as team members from Room to Read. Taking off our shoes, a teacher explained that the classes were still in session, so we quietly passed through the halls. The stone floor was lovely to walk on, and cooled me down quickly from the dry heat of the midday sun outside. As we walked through the corridors I could see students working hard through the windows, the older ones with their heads buried in textbooks and the younger children working on brightly coloured projects, or in circles on the floor listening to stories. There were many floors and as we climbed higher and higher, the people working in the courtyard below became ants as we looked down.
In Room to Read’s girls’ education programme, over 114,000 girls have benefited.
The impact that the reading programme had on the students was clear from the moment I stepped through the library door. The space had a wonderful atmosphere, full of colour, exciting stories and possibilities. I felt like I was back age 6, tempted by each cover, drawn to the walls of books. Drawings of frogs and fish lined the walls, and I spotted a book on the library shelf with similar characters that one class must have been working on. As I was admiring the range of languages that were included in the storybooks, I heard a faint but familiar noise from my own schooldays – the rumble that begins at the end of lessons as the whole school put their books away, tuck their chairs in and chats as they journey to the next lesson. As the rumble grew louder, the door opened, and I was introduced to the teacher that was taking the next class, Asha Telange.
I was honoured to join in with Asha’s lesson where I was able to witness first hand the passion exuded by the teachers being passed on to the children. The young girls all listened intently as Asha spoke, and when she asked a question, almost every hand in the room went up. We started by reading one of the books together and discussed the plot. The girl I was sat next to spoke English well and was keen to help me understand and practice some words in Marathi, the local dialect spoken at the school. I was surprised that the students seemed to be reading books that were far more complicated than I’d expect 6 or 7 year olds to be able to grasp. I asked Asha if this was a result of the literacy programme and found out that children in grades 1 and 2 have developed reading skills (reading with fluency and comprehension) that are three times greater than children of the same age but are not part of Room to Read’s programme.
Room To Read’s programmes highlight how supporting a girl through school changes not just her life, but her community and country too. I learnt the story of Nisha, a young girl from Uttarakhand who was told she had to give up her education to support her family. She managed to convince them to let her work and study at the same time, but it proved incredibly difficult. But then, she received a scholarship from RTR’s girls’ programme and her future changed. Despite incredibly hard and numerous set backs, her teachers supported her all through school, and after gaining a degree whilst working for a non-profit, she is now working towards becoming a teacher herself! “By becoming a teacher I would be able to transfer the education I have attained from different sources from one generation to the next.” – Nisha (Read Nisha’s full story here)
As the class turned to individual work, I had the opportunity to chat to the teachers and children as they showed me different parts of the library. I was very moved when one girl, Anushka, gave me a drawing of her favourite book to take home with me. She explained that her Mother also loved the story and she had been able to take the book home and share it with her. Two of the girls came over to join us, and showed me the book they use to log library books that have been taken home – they do it completely themselves, taking on the responsibility of being librarian as well as borrower. They chase up other students when they’ve held onto a book for too long, make note of which are the most loved, record every single thing… before the library, they told me, they had never had a storybook of their own.
Asha explained that since the children were able to take the books home, their families were becoming more involved with their education.
The ability to borrow books means that the students’ development doesn’t stop when they leave the library and continues into their personal lives. It was only thanks to Room to Read that they had these books; before, they had never even had books to look at in class, let alone to take home. It is so different, reading a book in class compared to reading in the quiet of your own place. You can read as fast, or as slowly as you like. You can be undisturbed by others and live the adventure at your own pace. I rarely read at school or in the library itself, finding the other children annoying and noisy. If I didn’t have books to take home, or books of my own, it’s unlikely I would have been a reader at all. As the girls told me more about how much they loved reading now and how pleased they were to have the option to choose their own books, I was imagining a childhood without Harry Potter, Horrible Histories or Roald Dahl. I would have been a totally different person without learning lessons and morals from my favourite characters.
With such a dedicated library, the children’s comprehension and reading skills are constantly supported as they develop; this support means that not only the children benefit from the programmes, but the parents and guardians are invited to be involved. Asha explained that since the children were able to take the books home, their families were becoming more involved with their education. The children could share their schoolwork with them, and read together as a family. With so many families across the world still not seeing the benefits of education for girls, taking books home is a very important step for many, as they have the chance to share what they have been learning – one child I spoke to even said that she has been teaching her grandmother to read as a result! Even from age 6, some children are just natural teachers.
In Room to Read’s girls’ education programme, over 114,000 girls have benefited, becoming independent readers equipped with the skills and habits of reading and completing secondary school with the skills necessary to negotiate key life decisions. After leaving the school, I thought about all of the girls I had met that day, and how proud they were of their school and library. I too was so proud, proud that The Maiden Factor had fundraised to support girls exactly like them, and to know that they had so many opportunities in life now, just because they had access to an education and constant support to develop their key skills. However it also made me feel overwhelmingly sad to think about the 130 million girls that have yet to even get to go to school – let alone have such amazing support in their literacy journey like the girls in Asha’s class.
Sadly, Maiden will not be setting sail unless we can fundraise enough to #KeepMaidenMoving, as the world tour was put on pause due to Coronavirus. UNESCO has highlighted that post Covid-19, the group of children most at risk of not returning to school are vulnerable girls and girls in poverty. Girls were already falling behind due to inequality in education – we can’t let it get even worse. Maiden needs to set sail again on her new mission, supporting and working with community programmes which empower and enable girls into education. Please help us to reach the vulnerable girls all over the world – donate now and show your support: www.themaidenfactor.org/donate
Thankyou to Room to Read for all of the photographs included in this blog!