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On International Day of the Girl, Books Matter

If we went to Ghana together, I'd want you to meet Linda Donkor, a 16-year-old student in Worldreader's program. She lives with her grandmother and her sisters.
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3d wooden shelves background...
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If we went to Ghana together, I'd want you to meet Linda Donkor, a 16-year-old student in Worldreader's program. She lives with her grandmother and her sisters. Late last year, Linda's mother passed away from a sickness -- she's not sure which. Now she reads what she calls "funny stories" for hours on her Kindle when she's grieving. It is what consoles her.

Linda has also read every health title in the Worldreader program, and asked us to send her more science books -- she's finished them all. When I asked why, she replied straightforwardly: "I want to become a nurse and help people. If I were a nurse, I would have never let my mother die."

Reading for Linda isn't a luxury. It is what helps her cope with the hardships of her life, and what is preparing her for the future. And what matters is that she has access to the books she wants and needs, not the cast-off books that someone else happened to pass along.

Linda and millions like her fighting huge odds. More than 36 million primary school girls in the developing world aren't even enrolled in school. Yet there is a clear, positive correlation between the length of time a girl remains in school and her family's income later on. Girls' success affects an entire family and a whole community.

Yet, even when girls manage to enroll in school, there is no guarantee that they will get the family support they will need to attend regularly, or to be able to study outside of school. And often, inequity around gender can lead to a performance gap.

Our work with Kindles in Africa, however, is showing encouraging trends that mean new horizons for girls. In our research, we've found that in primary schools with e-readers, girls' and boys' test scores improve at about the same rate -- both around 15 percent. That is an enormous improvement, but it doesn't really tell the whole story. When we look at our control schools -- those without e-readers -- the girls' scores improved only by about 3.1 percent. This can be due to all sorts of reasons -- for instance, when a child has to stay at home or do farming chores, it's almost always the girls. But the simple fact is that without our intervention, girls would have fallen behind; with books, they more than keep up.

We also know that American books don't always speak to African children in the way that local books do -- the issues they treat are different. We've partnered with over 25 African publishers to digitize over 500 African stories. Many of them have female role models going through similar experiences than they are. One of my favorite examples is Let Me Tell You, written by Kenyan costal girls who write about struggling to stay in school and create a better future. We hope that books like these can inspire girls to reach beyond their dreams.

How do you change the world? You change one life at a time -- and for many of these girls, change starts with a single book. Watch Linda talk about the impact books have on her life, and I think you'll agree. And if it moves you, please share it with people you know. It's time to give these girls a chance.