CEO of Room to Read Visits Australia

CEO and CO-FOUNDER OF GLOBAL NON-PROFIT URGES AUSTRALIANS TO RETHINK THE IMPORTANCE OF LITERACY AND GIRLS’ EDUCATION IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

“When an educated girl enters the workforce to secure economic independence, education’s power to transform lives is undeniable,” says Erin Ganju, CEO and co-founder of Room to Read, who visited Australia last month to promote the burgeoning Australian chapter of the non-profit organisation.

Since 2000, Room to Read has promoted literacy and girls’ education in developing countries, partnering with local communities to develop schools, establish libraries and publish local language books.

During Room to Read’s first years of operation, “we noticed there were a far greater number of boys in school,” Ganju told Australian Women Online. “The girls would have to drop out to take care of younger siblings or work in the home. It was almost assumed that it just wasn’t worth educating a girl.”

“But one of the best investments you can make in the developing world is investing in women and girls because there’s such a ripple effect — whether it’s lowering infant mortality or increasing the health and nutrition of the family. And the biggest determinant of whether children become educated is that there is a literate mother in the household.”

Today, the Room to Read Girls’ Education program supports more than 10,000 female secondary students in eight countries, providing material support (school fees, textbooks, uniforms, school supplies and transportation) as well as tutoring, life skills training, and mentoring.

Local staff is one of the keys to their success. “We have very strong in-country teams,” said Ganju. “They’re the people who know the dynamics of what it takes to make change happen in their own country, because they’re much closer to the community.”

“In our Girls’ Education program we have very important role models and mentors who work in the communities. They are professional women that Room to Read employs and trains, and they help to monitor our Girls’ Education programs, ensure that girls are going to school, and provide a safety net for them — if they have problems at home, or if they need extra tutoring, there’s a safe person, a woman that they can look up to and go to to help make the decisions.”

Some communities are initially resistant to educating girls. “Often times when we start working in a new community we meet with the community elders — who are largely men — and explain that we’re not talking about changing their religion or culture, we’re just focused on helping to educate girls,” said Ganju.

“Then we explain some of the practical realities about how (the Girls’ Education program) can have an impact — not just for the individual girl, but for her family as well. Statistics show that for every year a girl stays in secondary school, her earning potential increases on average 15 per cent. So if she makes it through to the end of twelfth grade she can make a totally different sort of economic contribution to the family.”

In 2010, 97 per cent of girls in the Girls’ Education program advanced to the next grade, and some have continued on to higher education.

Ganju says success can also be measured by community response. “It’s really exciting that in some of the communities where there was strong resistance to begin with, they are now asking us to continue to work there and to include more girls in the program. They’ve really seen the benefits.”

Room to Read, which is based in the United States, now has programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, South Africa and Zambia, made possible by the support of 52 fundraising chapters around the world.

“We have a very active volunteer network around the world, with over 10,000 volunteers,” says Ganju. “They hold fundraising events that help support Room to Read, and really spread the world about what we’re doing.’ In 2010 the organisation recieved sufficient donations to invest US$31.8 million in its programs.”

The first Australian chapter opened in Sydney in 2009. Since then, chapters have been established in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth, and Room to Read Australia has raised over A$4 million dollars through fundraising events, the support of corporate and foundation donations, employee grant matching programs, individual fundraising and the ‘students helping students’ program.

For more information on Room to Read Australia, visit the website at: www.roomtoread.org/australia

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