'Give the girls a fighting chance'

INTERVIEW

'Give the girls a fighting chance'

MAKING ROOM FOR CHANGE John Wood believes change starts with educated children.

World change starts with educated children. That is the belief that Room to Read — a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting education — was founded upon.

Room to Read recently tied up with the third edition of the Indian Premier League. How has the tie-up helped?

Our partnership with the Indian Premier League (IPL) has special significance because it  enabled us to bring the issue of illiteracy to the forefront of the national consciousness. With IPL’s backing, we are challenging the captive audience of cricket-lovers around the world to recognise the gravity of the issues India faces around literacy. We hope to inspire them to get involved to empower the true beneficiaries of this partnership — the millions of children in India who have a right to a high-quality education.

What are the challenges faced by Room to Read in India? How do you tackle these challenges?

Of the world’s illiterate people, approximately 35 per cent live in India, and, unless drastic measures are taken to address the issue, it’s estimated that by 2020 that figure will skyrocket to over 50 per cent. What’s more, there is a serious gender disparity in education.  Our team in India is working towards strengthening the Union government’s efforts to meet its goal of providing quality elementary education for all children.  In addition, we hire local staff who are personally vested in their nation’s educational progress and we empower them to make key programmatic decisions within their country.

India’s primary education system faces many problems — high dropout rate, lack of infrastructure, and teaching staff, etc. There are also different languages each region. How will these be tackled?

While there are indeed several challenges to working in a country like India, we continuously evolve our programming to address the needs of each country. We also understand the complexity of working in a multi-lingual, pluralistic country like India — which is why we introduced our Local Language Publishing programme in India, in 2005.
The books we publish are written by local authors and illustrated by local artists to ensure the content is culturally relevant and in a language they are familiar with.

One of RTR’s aims is gender equality in education. In India, particularly in the rural areas, education for the girl child is not really a priority. How can this situation be improved?

Studies have shown that when a girl is educated there is a direct link to a range of positive outcomes, including decreased child and maternal mortality rates; increased eventual wages; improvement of child nutrition and overall family health; and increased likelihood of educating the next generation.  That’s why our Girls' Education program aims to keep girls in school by covering the direct costs of school attendance  — school fees, textbooks, uniforms, and other school supplies — as well as contributing to transportation, room and board, immunisations, medical check-ups, and tutoring. We provide mentoring and life skills training that are designed to provide the support the girls need to continue their schooling and negotiate key life decisions beyond the classroom.

Despite the diversity of cultures in which we work, there seems to be one universal truth — parents want the best for their children. We are seeing definite progress toward engaging parents and communities in recognising the value of educating girls. Take for example our project in Alwar, where our intervention has influenced a Muslim community to take pride in sending their girls to schools. In fact, the first girl in that village to reach Grade 9 is one of our scholars.

What are the organisation’s plans in India?

We know there is an immense need for our work within India and Karnataka is high on the list. We have identified Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as our next priority; but this will be in a phased manner, as it depends on the availability of funding to sustain our programs in these states.
 
There are already many NGOs that work in the education sector. How do RTR’s efforts differ from theirs?

We are run like a business, and that really sets us apart. We are extremely cautious and transparent about how our funds are deployed, and we maintain an efficient overhead to ensure that at least 80 per cent of our funding goes directly to our work. Our model has proven to be scalable and sustainable, which means we are able to impact more children at a faster rate and long-term.

What is RTR’s plan for India over the next few years?

By the end of 2010, Room to Read in India aims to establish 850 more libraries, add 700 more girls to our Girls’ Education program (bringing the total number to over 2,700), and publish 18 new titles, including two new languages: Chhattisgarhi and Jharkhandi.

India is at the forefront of the expansion of our programmes to include working with teachers on enhancing reading instruction in the classroom. Additionally, we will expand our work in girls’ education. What all this means is that future generations of children in India will have doors of opportunity open to them that otherwise would not exist without the benefit of an education.

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