As promised yesterday, here is a post on promoting literacy in Asia, to tie in with UNESCO's International Literacy Day. It's from Jennie Orchard, of the Hong Kong chapter of Room to Read, the US-based non-profit organisation for improving literacy and gender equality in education in low-income countries.
On Thursday 8th September, UNESCO celebrated the 50th anniversary of the very first International Literacy Day, marking five decades of international efforts to promote literacy. But this was also an occasion to question and lament the fact that there are still over 750 million illiterate people in the world, and two-thirds of them are girls and women. These people will never be educated, will find it hard to make a living, will be unable to contribute meaningfully to their communities. How can this be possible in 2016?
Every one of us reading this blog knows the value of books in our lives. They are ‘the quietest and most constant of friends’, a ‘ticket to other worlds’, ‘a ball of light in one’s hand’, refuges ‘from almost all the miseries of life’. And yet books are an unattainable luxury for millions. In some countries there’s a complete dearth of suitable reading materials for children while in others, children are spoilt for choice, with ready access to bookstores, libraries and the ever-increasing wealth of material available online. One in seven adults across the globe is functionally illiterate, unable to read instructions, signs or maps, let alone newspapers and books. This appalling disparity is costing the world dearly, socially and economically. It is estimated that the annual cost of illiteracy is well over $US1 trillion.
BBC journalist Sean Coughlan wrote a brilliant piece about the lack of global funding for education and illiteracy: ‘If this were a disease, blighting the lives of so many people, there would be calls for urgent action. But the slow, insidious corrosion of illiteracy, ignorance and exclusion persists decade after decade.’
Since 2000 Room to Read, an innovative and dynamic global non-profit, has been focussing on literacy and gender equality through education, building schools, establishing libraries, distributing books, developing and delivering holistic literacy and girls’ education programmes. Room to Read initially launched its mission in Nepal but now works in ten low-income countries in Asia and Africa. By the end of 2015, it had impacted more than 10 million children, children who will perpetuate the benefits by educating their own sons and, significantly, their daughters.
Room to Read has been described by Hong Kong-based journalist Kate Whitehead as ‘the most influential children’s publisher you’ve never heard of’. With more than 1200 children’s titles published in over 25 languages such as Tamil, Khmer and Swahili, Room to Read’s award-winning publishing programme has brought beautiful local language books to millions of children, inspiring them to want to read, opening new worlds of possibility.
And now, in addition to books and libraries, Room to Read is delivering literacy programmes, recognising that literacy is the foundation of all learning and that if children don’t learn to read – and to love reading – while they’re young, they will simply never catch up. As Australian novelist Kate Forsyth has written, ‘Books can be a circuit-breaker for the cycle of poverty, famine, violence and crime that are among the worst of human ills. Books make us think better and feel more. They open our eyes, our minds and our hearts.’
Run like a business, with a clear focus on results and a low overhead, Room to Read is attracting an ever greater stream of donations and investments from corporate enterprises and foundations, schools and individuals. Impressed by its steady growth, the stellar achievements and the founding belief that ‘World Change Starts with Educated Children®’, donors or investors receive regular reports on the programmes they support and also, at some levels, the opportunity to visit and see the work they have funded.
In Australia and Hong Kong Room to Read has also created a network of literary connections through publishers, bookstores and a number of ambassadors, writers and illustrators including Deborah Abela, Tristan Bancks, Jesse Blackadder, Sarah Brennan, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Pamela Cook, Sarah Davis, James Foley, Kate Forsyth, Susanne Gervay, Gus Gordon, Jacqueline Harvey, Emily Maguire, Melina Marchetta, Sophie Masson, Bhakti Mathur, Belinda Murrell, Oliver Phommavanh, Alice Pung, Nury Vittachi, Dianne Wolfer and Markus Zusak.
On International Literacy Day, at five Bookazine bookstores in Hong Kong and twelve Berkelouw + Harry Hartog booksellers in Sydney, customers purchasing books were invited to donate a small sum to support Room to Read’s local language publishing programme. This ‘Buy a Book, Give a Book’ campaign will run for a month, raising valuable funds and awareness. It’s a simple concept but each and every donation will make a significant difference by funding books to inspire children to become readers for life, to empower them to take advantage of any educational opportunities on offer, to create better lives for themselves, their families, their communities.
UNESCO’s slogan for this year’s International Literacy Day is ‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’. It’s time for all booklovers everywhere to commit to banishing illiteracy, to empowering children to learn to read and to reach their full potential.
For more information about Room to Read click here.
To donate to Room to Read, click here.