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Room to Read’s Fight for Education Equality Part 1

It all started with a chance meeting with a Tibetan headmaster. One successful book drive later, former Microsoft executive John Wood decided to launch the child literacy NGO Room to Read. Now, Wood has turned his attention to girls’ education in developing countries.

Written by Edith Terry Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
John Wood, Room to Read co-founder, reads with school children in Nepal.Room to Read

On a trekking expedition to Nepal in 1998, 34-year-old John Wood accidentally discovered his true vocation. A high-powered executive, he was Microsoft’s director of business development for Greater China when he met a school headmaster in the remote village of Bahundanda.

This was a schoolmaster with a library that kept its precious, tattered books under lock and key. None of his eight classrooms, packed with children, had desks. So Wood came up with a plan – he would ask all his friends, family and co-workers to help him supply books to his new friend and his students.

Eighteen years later, Wood’s Room to Read program has helped 10 million students in Asia and Africa learn to read, with a separate program for female education that has helped 38,000 girls go to, and stay in, school. Here in part one, Wood explains why education for girls in the developing world is so important.

Women and Girls Hub: Why is it so vital to target girls’ literacy and education in the countries where you work?

John Wood: For every additional year a woman gets educated, her eventual income increases by 15–20 percent per year. We know that educated people are healthier, and that they have healthier families. Educated women are twice as likely to vaccinate their children, and educated women have lower infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. Basically, when a woman does well economically, she tends to spend that additional income on family, on food, shelter, clothing and medicine, whereas – nothing against my gender – men, when they make more money, tend to spend it on themselves.

We think with education, it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. It lifts status in society, it increases the family’s income, it increases the family’s well-being, yet we live in a world where 62 million young women and girls do not go to school. We live in a world where 773 million people are illiterate, and two-thirds of them are women and girls, so we think education is a game changer. That’s why I left Microsoft 15 years ago to start this organization, and why I continue to be very, very passionate about it, because we know that the future for these girls and women is being determined right now. If we intervene and get these women educated, it’s going to change everything for them and their communities and their societies. So why not do this? If we don’t do this in a big way, we’re wasting a lot of really bright human potential if these girls do not get in school and stay in school.

Women and Girls Hub: What makes the gender gap in education more acute in the developing world than in advanced industrial countries?

John Wood: In a lot of low-income countries, the communities and the governments face a conundrum, that they’re too poor to afford education, but at a low level of education, they’re always going to remain poor. When I first started Room to Read, I met a headmaster in Nepal who had an empty library and 400 students, and I asked him, why are you missing something as important as books? And he said to me, “Well, in Nepal, we’re too poor to afford education, but until we have education, we’re always going to remain poor.”

For places where Room to Read works, in 10 countries in Asia and Africa, the poverty and fact that [the areas are] rural quite often means that schools are very far away, so it can involve quite a long commute for a girl, often on foot. It can be two to three hours each way, which means that it’s less likely their parents will let them go to school.

Quite often, the secondary schools charge fees. They might charge a monthly school fee for tuition, there’s fees for books, there’s fees for uniforms, and a lot of these kids who come from families living on $1 or $2 a day can’t afford what’s needed, be it a bicycle or school supplies or school fees.

And so a lot of students are out of school for reasons that are I think fairly easy to solve. If a family can’t afford a bicycle or a school uniform, but still want their daughter to go to school, then let’s help them. Some of the girls may drop out because they may not have educated parents to help them with their homework, so, on our staff, Room to Read has these really strong local women called social mobilizers, and they are available to help the girls with everything they need, whether it be help with their homework or help with career planning. These strong local women are there to act almost like an additional parent or guardian for the young women. What we’re trying to do is make sure that, with any barrier that exists to young women getting educated, our local teams are empowered to help the girls overcome those barriers.

Women and Girls Hub: What are the goals of Room to Read’s program for girls’ education?

John Wood: We now have 38,000 girls and young women in our program. And our goal is that for every 50 girls in our program we will have one social mobilizer on staff. The social mobilizers will quite often live out in the rural areas, so they’re close to the schools and the communities where we work. This way they know every girl by name, and they know her family situation.

We have put in place early-warning systems so that, if a girl misses a certain number of days of school, our social mobilizers will be made aware of that by the other students or by the teachers, so that they can figure out what’s going on with the girl. Is she sick? Does she need medicine? Is she getting pressure from the parents to drop out? The social mobilizers not only work with the girls on helping them with their studies, but also help the girl and intervene when there’s something pressuring her, be it a medical issue, be it parents wanting them to drop out, to make sure the girl has everything she needs to stay in school.

Women and Girls Hub: What are the main barriers to girls’ education in the communities where you work?

John Wood: There are two major barriers that I see. One category is attitudinal barriers: sometimes there’s a deep-seated belief or resistance in the community to young women and girls going to school. And then I think quite often there are what I’d call financial barriers, that the community may have built a school, that has grades one through five, or one through eight, but they have not built a secondary school.

Quite often this is because in the aftermath of the U.N. development goal of universal primary education, the world built a lot of primary schools but didn’t build nearly as many secondary schools. Quite often, a young woman might live close to a primary school, but the secondary school would be much farther away. Also, because secondary school slots are more scarce in low-income countries, there is an exam system quite often where girls and boys have to pass [to progress] to the next level, be it eighth grade or 10th or 11th grade. There are exams involved, and if students aren’t prepared and haven’t had the chance to study or the right level of instruction, they quite often can be at risk of not passing that exam. That’s one of the key reasons we have our social mobilizers on staff, to make sure that these girls are studying and equipped with everything they need to be ready to take these exams with confidence and pass them.

Women and Girls Hub: Why is the dropout rate for girls so high?

John Wood: We have looked in the past at the reasons that women and girls drop out. We’ve seen early marriage being a factor, pregnancy being a factor; we’ve seen economic pressure, that girls can be pressured by their parents to drop out at age 14 or 15, and go to work to support the family. We’ve seen economic issues, where the families can’t afford the school fees or the school supplies or the bicycle.

And so one of the things that we’ve done is have a program called the life skills program. What we do with the girls in our program is that we’re supporting them academically, but in addition to academics, we have a life skills program that is being run outside of normal school hours: it could take place in the late afternoon; it could take place in the early morning; it could take place on weekends. And the life skills program is set up with the goal of helping these young women develop the skills they’ll need to negotiate key life decisions. So it’s everything from career planning, to family planning, to how they can set up a savings account and start making small contributions, to be ready to go to university or tertiary education.

The life skills program includes scholarship schemes for university, so the girls are aware of what things may exist in their own country that may help them make that leap from secondary school to university or tertiary education. We include medical instruction in the life skills program . We include their rights over their own bodies, what I think the India team calls the difference between appropriate touching and inappropriate touching.

We also try to occasionally incorporate parents into the life skills sessions. Some of the sessions are for girls only, because sometimes they will have a different conversation if their parents are not in the room, or their guardians are not in the room. But we don’t want this program to be a black box to the parents and guardians, or for them to be afraid of it because they don’t know what it is, so we occasionally do invite the parents in.

Two of the metrics we track are what percentage of the girls in our program takes part in the life skills program every year. We also track what percentage of parents takes part in the life skills program each year, so that when the girl goes home, she can talk to her parents about the program, and it’s a known thing the parents support as opposed to an unknown thing her parents might fear.

This is the first part of a two-part interview with John Wood. The second part can be found here.

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