Six years ago today, I became the Executive Director of READ Global, the amazing organization that I am still honored to lead. It didn’t dawn on me until years later how perfect it was that I joined READ on International Women’s Day.
When I started traveling in southern Asia about 15 years ago, I was shocked to learn how starkly different my personal experience as a woman was from the reality of millions of women and girls around the world, for whom education is merely a dream – something they have heard about but will never experience for themselves. Adult literacy rates in South Asia are some of the lowest in the world, with women’s consistently lower than men’s.
Through meeting and speaking with many of the women in READ communities, I’m more certain than ever that libraries are the perfect platform for empowerment of women and girls. Libraries are seen as safe spaces where women can go without asking permission from their husbands – opening up the door to education, leadership development and skill-building. My heart leaps with joy when I think about the amazing women I’ve met at READ Centers in Nepal, India and Bhutan who now greet me with confidence, with smiles on their faces and a newfound sense of purpose about their lives.
READ India Director Geeta Malhotra, me and an amazing READ Center user!
And it’s not only women’s lives that are changing in READ communities. Attitudes about the role of women and girls are shifting even amongst men. A few days ago, I read a report about the success of a recent literacy program that served 120 women at a READ Center in Haryana, India – a state known to be one of the most difficult parts of India to be a woman. Child marriage for girls is rampant and pregnant women often do not have access to proper medical care, putting both mother and child at risk. While looking at this report, I was encouraged not only by the women’s proud smiles during their graduation ceremony, but by the fact that 80% of the women graduating were married. This reflects a huge shift in perception within the community – the fact that these husbands allowed their wives to leave the home every day for two months to learn how to read shows they are beginning to understand the value of education for women. Men now see that an educated mother can take better care of her children because she has access to accurate information. They understand that an educated woman can earn more income and will use 80 cents of each dollar earned to support her family. Everyone benefits when women are empowered.
I’ve seen the same shift in Bhutan – a country that didn’t have a formal education system until fairly recently. I remember listening to a group of women share their READ Center experiences with me and our Bhutan Country Director, Karma Lhazom. As other women spoke about the transformation they experienced after becoming literate, I watched a 6-year old boy continuously look up at his silent mother, wondering why she was being so shy. He finally spoke up and asked her, “Why aren’t you saying anything? I want you to share too.” It was such a beautiful moment. This young boy was so proud of his mom and he wanted others to be proud of her too.
And of course, empowerment in rural Nepal is more evident than ever. In Parsa District recently, about 1,000 people (mostly men) came out to watch a young women’s soccer tournament organized by the local READ Center – the first time anything like this had happened in that community. And at our newly opened center in Deukhuri Village, young women are playing soccer and wearing their sports uniforms in public for the first time ever, including Sabina (pictured below). Her father is also a soccer player, and you can just see the joy in both of their faces – not only is he allowing her to pursue soccer, but he is so proud of her for doing so.
Left: This girls’ soccer game is the first of its kind in this community.
Right: Sabina and her father stand proudly together as she follows in his footsteps as a soccer player.
I love that my anniversary at READ coincides with a global celebration of the strength and resilience of women. This is the work that I was meant to do, and the courage of these women inspires me every day. I hope I will have the honor of serving them for another 6 years, because there are still millions of women who are cut off from education and opportunities to create a better future for themselves and their children. It’s up to all of us to change that.
Will you donate right now and be this change?
Thank you for your support. Together, I know we can continue changing women’s lives. Happy International Women’s Day!