How to Save a Girl's Life With the Power of Literacy

How can we make sure that the 524 million women and girls around the world who cannot read or write have the chance to become literate? It's a challenge that I think about every day. I founded my organization, LitWorld, to create and implement new ways for the most marginalized girls to have access to the transformational productivity of literacy.

Literacy is about so much more than decoding words on a page. It is about cultivating a love of reading, writing and learning. It is about finding new layers of meaning in our lives through the stories we read, and the stories we tell about our experiences. It is about authoring a future of independence that is not pre-determined by geography or gender or poverty or a zip code. It is about gaining access to previously unimagined opportunities for our lives through the window to the world that is opened when we can read.

Most fundamentally, it is also about the joy of human connection, about finding oneself in the depth of the stories we read and the information we seek and find. It is about a girl's right to learn information that could literally save her life. By Googling something she wants to know, she can safely open doors to her choices and to her future. By not knowing what those words mean on the screen, she is forever left out from the power that information can bring to her life.

There are simple, flexible and cost-effective ways to prevent girls from disappearing from school, from working at home, or being married at a young age. The loss of the stories and ideas that these girls would generate is a devastating loss for the whole world. I believe literacy is the most portable, mobile tool for women's equity we have. It doesn't have to remain a responsibility owned only by the four walls of a school building.

With LitWorld and our partner organization Global Girls Rising, we have created the 10,000 Girls Initiative, a radical plan to impact 10,000 girls between the ages of 10-16 who live in high-risk areas in the next 12 months. After the launch this year we will rapidly expand and scale up to reach 1 million girls next year. To get to this goal, we need to spread the word about what works for empowering girls through literacy.

Here's why the 10,000 Girls Initiative will work.

It's about the strengths girls already have: their own stories.

My entire work is based on this idea: that you can use what you have to become fully empowered, and that what we all have is stories of our own. Research shows that literacy grows most quickly by telling and writing down these personal experiences -- it is the story that we know the best.

10,000 Girls is centered on making sure girls have access to both their inner narratives and diverse literature. It builds confidence and a strong sense of self to understand that your words, story and experience matter, that they are valuable and valued. It is equally important to make sure girls read and absorb stories of strong people, and big ideas.

It's about joy.

Joy may not sound scientific but I assure you, programs and learning without joy are sure to fail. Think about it -- we practice and perfect the things we love to do and we surround ourselves with people who affirm us and inspire us to live our best lives. Joy is crucial in all of this. No one wants to read if the material doesn't speak to their own interests and passions, and girls will not return to a program week after week if they do not enjoy the curriculum or if they do not feel safe.

10,000 Girls bring girls together in small groups with a trained mentor each week for read alouds, creative writing, and community-building activities. The girls also have time and space for honest discussions about common topics that they do not otherwise have a chance to talk through with friends who may be having similar experiences, and with mentors who can share perspectives and advice. We create a safe, positive space for girls by making affirmation central to the curriculum, and by placing equal importance on laughter as reading and writing because joy leads to resilience.

It's about community leadership.

Social transformation is within the reach of all communities if people themselves are valued as the most treasured resource. The 10,000 Girls approach works because the curriculum is centered on something all girls have no matter where they live: their own stories, hopes and dreams. This makes the model inherently replicable. What allows for greater mobility and flexibility is community leadership. The mentors of the 10,000 Girls initiative are all local community women leaders who have grown up in the same context as the girls they mentor.

So how can you help?

Stand up for girls.

Too often it seems that the issue of gender inequality in education is only reported on when catastrophe strikes: when 200 Nigerian girls are kidnapped or when a young girl in Pakistan is shot point blank in the head for pursuing her education. This particular catastrophe is ongoing every single day, and needs steadfast advocates to get the statistics and facts out to their networks. Use your social media sites to tell this story and to be part of Stand Up for Girls Day on Oct. 11th, a campaign that is in full force right now. Find sample social media posts, action steps and advocacy tips at the LitWorld website and learn how you can support us as we build the 10,000 Girls campaign.

Be the story.

The core words of LitWorld are "Be the Story." What story are you telling for the women and girls in your community? You can be a literacy advocate for girls wherever you live, whether it is creating a safe and joyful reading and writing club for girls to discover who they are and how they can make an impact in the world, or taking time to read aloud every day with your daughter, niece or a friend. Be a reading role model at all times and in all places.

Support what works.

I can speak for LitWorld when I say that we are so grateful for the crowd funding movement that allows anyone to create a fundraiser for an organization they care about. By rallying family and friends to support the work that resonates with you (or simply making your own contribution), you will make it possible for the organization to grow their work, and to directly impact more women and girls.

I don't know what the world will look like 50 years from now, but I do know that literacy lasts a lifetime and that it is humankind's greatest innovation: flexing and changing to suit the elastic times within which we live. Everyone should have a right to it. Regardless of what devices we will be using to read or write the skill of absorbing ideas and creating new ideas will only become more important. Empowering the innovators of tomorrow, half the world's population, women and girls, starts with giving them access to fulfill humanity's insatiable appetite for the world of story, and giving them the right to author their own limitless stories for the future.