Rebels with room to read
18 May 2022 at 4:57 pm
Room to Read works to increase literacy in young children globally. A new collaboration with publisher Rebel Girls has led to the organisation being featured in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers. Jonathan Alley spoke to Room to Read CEO Dr Geetha Murali.
Dr Geetha Murali first met Rebel Girls CEO Jes Wolfe through her YPO (Young Presidents Organisation) group.
Murali’s international not for profit specialises in removing literacy barriers in young children and works to keep girls in school, and Wolfe is a hotshot publisher. “We were having a casual conversation about strategic plans. It was pretty clear that we were really aligned from a mission and values perspective,” says Murali via zoom from the USA.
While Rebel Girls is more commercially focused, distributing content both physically and digitally, the philosophical synergies between two organisations was clear.
“We were both committed to presenting young students, particularly girls, with options that they may not be exposed to through their immediate surroundings,” Murali tells Pro Bono News.
“And given our girls’ education program, where we’re helping young girls dream of futures as scientists and doctors and researchers, having a brand like Rebel Girls – that has made it their business to tell those stories – was a sort of immediate synergy.”
The result of the collaboration is Room to Read Girls’ Education participants being featured in the latest book in the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a series of books which place strong, gutsy and utterly independent young women at the forefront of tales that are more feisty than fairy. Big names featured in the book include environmentalist Greta Thunberg and tennis star Emma Raduacanu, while Australian conservationist Bindi Irwin contributes a foreword. All writers are aged nine to 30, with the books featuring 90 illustrations by contributing artists.
But, as Murali knows better than most, not all the young women engaging with Room to Read globally can find them online or walk to a corner bookstore to gain access to a project like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. The book series is the latest in a long-running series of Room to Read collaborations and literacy initiatives. Room to Read began in Nepal, and has since branched out to work with communities in 21 different countries.
With the organisation working to increase literacy in young women in countries as diverse as India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, the challenges to fulfil the Room to Read mission – to provide literacy tools to those with the greatest need – can be a challenge. While Room to Read ensures online access through their literacycloud.org project which features children’s books from all over the world, physical print and delivery remains a massive part of their operation.
Murali describes the first part of Room to Read’s goal as “sourcing stories, creating them and making them available”, but she says distribution to “reach girls wherever they might be” is an equally strong priority. The passion and determination behind the mission is palpable when she’s drawn on how they face down those obstacles.
“I think aggressive is probably the best word to use… about using every single channel available to us,” Murali says.
“When we did children’s book distribution during the pandemic, for example, we utilised camels in deserts, we utilised boats along waterways. So we have an initial series of print runs that we’re doing through our own programs and retreats, and we worked with three million girls. During the pandemic period, we created a range of channels for content distribution via offline print distribution channels. We do a lot of broadcast work. We did a lot of radio broadcasts as well, television broadcasts.”
But the challenges don’t just lie in delivery: sometimes it’s just a case of pure scale.
India, which accounts for one third of the world’s illiterate population, represents both steep and unique challenges.
“You’re working with different states to implement programs,” Murali says. “And you have a level of diversity that adds to complexity around literacy education, in terms of the numbers of languages – 23 official languages, 700 unofficial languages.”
Of course, diversity means just that; while illiteracy in young women is a global problem, different societies have highly differing needs. One example Murali cites is Vietnam, a nation that’s experienced both a massive population explosion and stronger economic prosperity after decades of war and hardship.
“In somewhere like Vietnam, you’ve got a little bit of a different issue,” Murali says. “You’ve got a country that has developed quite a lot economically, but you still have poor, rural, ethnic communities that are not getting equal access to education, might have a different language that they’re speaking and have to ‘mainstream’ into the language of instruction.”
And Nepal, which was Room to Read’s first base of operations, remains a priority after years of civil war and natural disaster.
“The government provides free education in primary schools, but they’re severely under-funded and over-crowded, especially in rural areas. It’s a difficult terrain in which to educate children,” she says. “Girls are at a much higher risk of cultural bias, there’s a pressure to marry early. For example, in Nepal it’s like 50 or 60 per cent of girls that marry before they’re before they’ve turned 18.”
But while Room to Read’s operations face disparate issues in their various operational centres, the fundamental mission – teaching young women to read – remains the common, unbreakable thread of their work.
“We know what it takes to develop those skills and that habit. We know what it takes for a girl to develop her sense of self and dignity, and to be able to voice their opinion,” Murali says.“You see girls who have just joined our program, versus those who’ve been on the program for a few years. You hear them speak, you see the way they carry themselves. They are able to articulate their opinions: they have needs and wants of their own. We’ve shared some of those stories, [they] are profiled in the Rebel Girls Collection. But we don’t need just one or two of those girls. We need millions.”