Despite widespread efforts over the past fifteen years to improve education in South Asia – mostly through access to primary education – the ground reality is that hundreds of millions of people are being left behind, and the causes and implications go far beyond school walls.
Drop-out rates remain staggeringly high: 1 in 3 students drop out before they finish primary school, often leaving because of child marriage, child labor, because their parents can’t afford school, or simply because school is too far away.
Schools on their own are insufficient to address educational gaps in South Asia. The region is home to 53% of the world’s 907 million illiterate, and a majority are adults living in poverty who are not part of the formal education system. Illiteracy costs the global economy an estimated $1.19 trillion annually because of its effects on unemployment and lost productivity.
When parents can’t read, they can’t take care of their families in simple ways, like reading a bottle of medicine, helping their children with their schoolwork, or keeping track of their savings. Their job prospects are limited, making it difficult to lift their families out of poverty.
So how can we reach the hundreds of millions of people being left behind?
Education efforts need to systematically address socio-cultural barriers like poverty, gender, ethnicity, and class.
One of the biggest social challenges to reaching the uneducated in South Asia is poverty.
Almost half the population lives on less on less than $2.50 a day, and 68% live in rural areas. 27 million children are not in school, mostly because the opportunity cost is high – parents living in poverty need their children to take care of other siblings or work in the fields.
People living in poor, rural areas also miss out on education because of a lack of infrastructure. In Bhutan, 36% of public schools are not reachable by road, and in Nepal, only 11.1% of the population accesses information on the Internet.
Cultural attitudes towards gender can also adversely impact education.
More than half of the world’s 493 million illiterate women are in South Asia. Education for girls is often cut short due to child marriage and related early pregnancies. If present trends continue, some 130 million girls in South Asia will be married as children by 2030. As adults, these women often must seek permission from their husbands to leave their homes for reasons other than childcare or agricultural work.
Social class and ethnicity also present barriers to education.
In countries like India, children from lower caste or poor families have higher chances of dropping out of school. The Indian government has tried to make schools more accessible through reimbursement of school fees, but some schools still discriminate based on caste and religion, or only allow students to apply through online submission forms (which is impractical since only 15 percent of Indians use the Internet and only 9.5 percent of households have a computer).
A simple, but innovative solution to addressing these challenges is the community library.
READ Global establishes libraries called READ Centers that offer an integrated approach to community-wide education in South Asia, giving everyone the opportunity to learn free of cost. More than two million villagers have access to 73 READ Centers across South Asia. Each year, tens of thousands participate in educational trainings, not only learning to read, but also gaining new job skills, saving money for the first time, and learning about issues like health and women’s rights.
In South Asia, community libraries are neutral, safe places for women and people of all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to visit, making them an ideal platform for education interventions.
READ Center libraries are owned and operated by local communities, with management committees representing the diverse makeup of the village. This community ownership, along with micro-enterprise, contributes to the long-term sustainability of the Centers. Each Center has a business that generates profit to support ongoing costs – a much-needed source of income in communities that couldn’t otherwise afford it. The businesses range from storefront rentals to agricultural cooperatives.
One of the challenges to scaling this type of initiative is the sheer breadth of the problem, and the resources that it takes to be addressed.
READ Global’s model is based on deep, targeted interventions in one community at a time. To reach more people, faster, READ has developed a model similar to the branch library system in the United States: once a larger “Hub” Center is built, several smaller, less costly “Satellite” Centers are established nearby that can benefit from resource-sharing and collective training programs.
Cost is another consideration. As UNESCO has pointed out, adult education is often “low in the pecking order” of priority for resource-strapped governments in developing countries, despite the fact that these programs “can help to break the chain of intergenerational transmission of poverty.”
To minimize costs and take advantage of the vast expertise within the development sector, READ Global’s model thrives on partnerships. Libraries provide the infrastructure and last-mile linkages to otherwise inaccessible communities for partners like governments and NGOs to offer training programs.
The conversation about education needs to encompass more than children and primary education. It needs to be about children and adults, men and women, and entire communities and countries.
In order to change the status quo and truly provide education for all in South Asia, we need more integrated efforts that systematically address social and economic barriers to education.
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About the author:
Tina Sciabica, Executive Director
As Executive Director, Tina leads READ Global’s strategy, partnerships and fundraising. She has spent the past decade working toward a more just and sustainable world, and brings a wealth of non-profit and social sector experience to the organization. Read more here.