Improving global literacy rates for girls is akin to improving the health of everyone on the planet. If everyone ate less junk food and exercised more and didn’t smoke, people would be healthier and live more fulfilling lives. That is a fact. Here are a few more facts; Illiterate girls grow into illiterate women who have more kids at a faster rate than literate girls. Those kids end up dropping out of school and committing crimes. Over half of the adult inmate population in America can barely read. Facts. The correlation between literacy and crime is well documented and evident as the best and brightest among us usually don’t end up behind bars. But what if those girls could read and teach their children to read? What if those women could help their children with their homework so the next day those kids didn’t have to catch up and school was more enjoyable for them? What if those boys and girls became and remained interested in reading and discovered science, technology, engineering and math? Cycle broken. Not just in America—worldwide. I’m not saying there would be no more crime, but poor people who can’t read usually commit crimes. So for every crime literacy prevents, there is one less victim and two more futures. Increasing global female literacy is essentially preventative medicine for the world. This is common sense, not a freakanomics case study (love those guys by the way). A better educated and well adjusted society with less crime and much less strain on public services. Win, win, win and win.
So what’s being done to make this happen you ask?
In 2006, Wanda Bedard and group of her dedicated friends started a foundation called 60 Million Girls. The goal of that foundation is increasing education opportunities for poor girls in developing countries. In 2015, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, launched the Let Girls Learn initiative to help 62 million adolescent girls in poor and developing countries start and complete their education. In the nine-year span since the first of the two organizations started their mission, it would appear that the marginalization of girls from poor and developing countries has gotten worse–by about 2 million girls!
The countries mostly affected by these issues are the same 9 years later, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Mexico. Let’s face it. It’s not as if adolescent marriage and child labor has suddenly become all the rage in Switzerland. We know fundamentally something is wrong. We know that inevitably these girls will become mothers and the cycle of poverty and ignorance will continue. In fact, according to dosomething.org, teenage girls between 16-19 with below average literacy skills are more the 6 times likely to become unwed mothers than their more literate counterparts-and that’s just the stats for American girls! The rest of the world is brutal when it comes to educating girls. In sub-Saharan Africa fewer than 40% of girls will ever be exposed to any kind of formal learning. One has to wonder; what is the upside to keeping the daughters who will become mothers virtually locked out of a future?
Money and resources have been thrown at the problem. Attention has been called to the circumstances in which these girls live in but not their actual place in the world. Sure, build a school and teach children to read and tell them that they can be anything they want to be. But after you teach them how to read and shove a book in their hands, whom are they reading about? What characters do they see? How do we instill in these girls that they are relevant enough to lead productive lives? I am not certain if general book knowledge without some sort of self-actualization is all that practical in the world we live in today.
How do we shift behaviors regarding the global inequality of gender and ethnicity in girls who later become women? A certain path is reaching them while they are young. If we start young we have a better chance at telling some adolescent/teenager that she can be anything she wants-especially if she’s never heard it. What is the best way to create a message and then ensure that that message can be imprinted over and over again on the recipient? The written word. Driven home by an image in the recipients likeness.
Hundreds of years of advertising can’t be wrong. There is a reason the people in print advertising and television ads look the way they do. That reason is to reach a market of like-minded look-a-likes. Every message needs a vehicle-a way to propel it to its respective audience.
The best vehicle for the message of ‘we want you to succeed because you matter in the world’ is a book. Besides being good for cognitive development, they are an amazing opportunity to bond while showing her examples of herself. How great is it to enforce a positive mindset right before she falls asleep? Imaging the dreams! But first these books have to exist. And when these books do exist they must not be regulated to “specialty” sections or trotted out at specific times of the year. Disclaimer: I am a children’s author and publisher of diverse books. So yes I have a dog in this fight, and it’s looking to be fed. But there are many more diverse authors out there and many more stories to be told, and let’s not forget my earlier examples of how global female literacy benefits the ENTIRE WORLD.
The bottom line is that ethnic and gender exclusion is real—in literature and in life. It is a huge problem that many of societies ills come from. As with medicine, there is no magic bullet to reverse a lifetime of bad habits. However, with dedication and a concerted effort to do better, it is never to too late to get better.