FALLS CHURCH, Virginia — Dewmini, a Sri Lankan student, had no other option but to leave school, a decision not uncommon for many young girls living in poverty. Facing severe droughts and food scarcity, Dewmini’s family pulled her out of school and sent her to the city as a servant. Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in Sri Lanka intervened, providing Dewmini with the skills to advocate for her education as she supported her family with a garden to sell vegetables in her village. Dewmini’s story is one of many examples of how the Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program’s empowerment of young girls can help them realize their full potential and fight poverty.
According to the World Bank, 260 million children are not in school, reflecting a global learning crisis. The learning poverty crisis amplifies poverty rates and prevents countries from addressing the potential for economic growth.
Room to Read created its Girls’ Education Program to improve literacy and gender equality in education within low-income communities. Ensuring girls stay in school and gain crucial life skills such as literacy and self-advocacy can significantly improve the quality of life for the whole household. According to its 2022 Fact Sheet, Room to Read supported more than 3.2 million girls through its Girls’ Education Program.
The four critical elements of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program are life skill classes, mentorship, family and community engagement and materials support. Utilizing these tools to empower girls to continue their education creates a safe place for help and advocacy.
“Room to Read is unique because we invest in girls’ education for long-term, systemic change,” wrote Lucina Di Meco, Vice President of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program and Abigail Spangler, Global Manager, in an email interview with The Borgen Project. “This means that Room to Read scales our gender equality programming to the country level and focuses on supporting girls in a multi-year program during their transition into and through secondary school — where there is the most risk for girls to drop out of school and not continue their education.”
Why Support Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program?
Many families living in low socioeconomic conditions have to make a choice: do they send their children to school or keep them home to work? Girls are disproportionately impacted by this decision and gender roles as families are more likely to send boys to school. A UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) report revealed that nearly 15 million girls will never receive the opportunity for education compared to the 10 million boys in the same position, a large gender gap.
Financial barriers keeping girls from adequate education include expensive school fees, child marriage to reduce a family’s economic burden, lack of learning materials and distance. Material support from Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program covers these costs while also providing transportation, such as bikes, bus fares or river passage on boats.
Facing Adversities Head On
Innovation and evolution were crucial for NGOs to continue making societal changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with around 138 countries closing schools worldwide and limited access to virtual learning tools for those living in low socioeconomic status, the gap in math and literacy skills between students of different backgrounds continued to widen.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program teams adapted intervention strategies to support girls’ needs. For example, the Girls’ Education Program offered life skills learning through television broadcasts or online streaming and Zoom mentoring sessions. Overall, Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program broadcasted 600 radio episodes and 230 episodes through television or streaming services and conducted more than 550,000 independent mentoring sessions with girls at high risk of not continuing education.
Life After Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program
Before Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, Sreyleab, a student from Cambodia, almost dropped out of her secondary school. Sreyleab shared her story in a video interview with Room to Read, saying, “I met my social mobilizer who encouraged me and helped me stay strong. She showed me the value of education. Room to Read’s life skills taught me to be resilient, adaptive and stay strong.” She is now on the path to completing her bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Dewmini, Sreyleab and thousands of other young girls have a brighter outlook on life after completing the Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program program. According to Di Meco and Spangler, more than 70% of girls who complete the Girls’ Education Program continue to higher education or enter a career within one year of graduating.
The decision to enroll in higher education or find stable employment offer girls the opportunity to rise above poverty and forge a path of financial independence. Dewmini moved on to mobilize village leaders to construct wells. Getting a head start with Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program opens doors many of these young girls did not previously have available.
Future of the Girls’ Education Program
The Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program plans to expand its outreach with new programs addressing education inequality. The Financial Education Initiative is a voluntary after-school program for girls to gain financial literacy skills and economic empowerment. Teaching young girls to be involved with finances early is crucial to break outdated gender roles of only men handling finances.
Italy is next on Room to Read’s radar because although Italy is a wealthier country, not every person receives the same opportunities. In a Room to Read study, out of 34 countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Italy held the fourth highest unemployment rate among women. Target areas are Naples and Palermo for girls aged 14-19.
“We have seen the girls we serve learn to believe in themselves, persist through difficulties and support one another as they seek to improve their circumstances and their communities,” wrote Di Meco and Spangler. “They have a deep understanding of their individual potential to overcome any challenges that come their way.”
– Mikada Green