Words Changing Worlds

Worldwide at least 774 million people remain illiterate, unable to enjoy the right and pleasure of reading. Two-thirds of them are women.
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On March 9th, in New York's Times Square and other public squares, schools and homes across the globe, people are coming together to celebrate the power of words and stories. Last year my organization LitWorld started World Read Aloud Day to bring greater awareness and support to the global literacy movement. By reading aloud together on this day, we raise our voices on behalf of the millions of people worldwide who hunger to join the world of words and stories.

Worldwide at least 774 million people remain illiterate, unable to enjoy the right and pleasure of reading. Two-thirds of them are women. According to the United Nations, the highest rates of illiteracy in the world can be found in Africa.

I've traveled to Liberia, where at least half of all women over the age of 15 are illiterate. In a writing workshop I led, I met a young woman named Martina who extended her hand to me when asked why she wanted to learn to read and write. "See my thumb," she said. "This is how I vote; I vote with my thumb. I am ashamed. It's like I'm not a person. I want to read and write so I can vote with my name." Each time I return to Liberia, I notice many of the girls I met before are no longer visible. If they are over the age of eleven, most have disappeared, back into the home, restricted from school by the combined forces of poverty and gender.

In Kenya, less than half of all girls make it to high school. They stay at home to help with cooking, cleaning, care-giving and fetching water. Two other factors that keep girls home are the threat of sexual violence and the lack of sanitary napkins to maintain personal hygiene and dignity.

In Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, I've worked at the Red Rose School where many of the girls are HIV/AIDS orphans. Despite exhaustion from hunger, lack of good nutrition and the round the clock care they take of younger siblings, the girls are eager and engaged students. When Diana, age ten, read Charlotte's Web for the first time, she said: "Before I read about Fern, I never knew a girl could be so brave as to stand up to her father." Literature teaches us all how to be brave, imagine new worlds of possibility and explore our true selves. All children must have the right to read great books made just for children that both help them learn to read and also help them find their own courage and potential in them.

All over the world, girls are hungry for school and for the power learning brings, for the joy of stories, the beauty of poetry and the sheer impact of information. Girls need support, safe spaces and resources so they can stay in school and succeed. Research shows that children learn to read and write best by writing and telling the stories of their own experiences. Yet is rare to find safe spaces inside of schools where girls feel fully confident and comfortable to do so. Instead, too many remain isolated, marginalized and illiterate.

More girls would stay in school, and succeed, if they had truly safe spaces in which to learn and grow. At LitWorld, we have pioneered a new model for teaching and learning, the LitWorld Girls Clubs for Literacy. The definition of literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen. By using a participatory model and listening to girls, we demonstrate through our model that we can transform literacy achievement and close the gender gap in education. The urgency for solutions to not only the gender equity issue but how we can keep girls actively engaged with their learning in really productive ways is evidenced by how fast these clubs are growing worldwide, from Harlem to Nairobi, from Baghdad to Manila, from Monrovia to Brooklyn. My goal is to have Girls Clubs for Literacy represented in every state in the United States and every country of the world by 2015. If you are interested in launching a club in your local community, please let us know.

Imagine the possibility of one girl, and how words can change her world. Now multiply that by 600 million and imagine their words changing our world. When girls are educated, they marry later, have fewer and healthier children, contribute more to their society and the economic growth of their communities and nations and lead more fulfilling, healthier lives punctuated by the joy of a good story and the thrill of friendship connections across time and space.

What actions can we take together?

On Wednesday, March 9th join LitWorld for World Read Aloud Day, wherever you are, no matter your age. We need you with us.If you are in New York, come to Times Square for our 24 Hour Read Aloud Marathon. Anywhere you are, register the minutes you read aloud to someone on World Read Aloud Day at litworld.org so we can reach 774 million minutes to represent all the people who cannot read.

To help spread the word with us virtually, post on Facebook and Twitter: Fight for Global Literacy and join litworld.org (@litworldsays) in celebrating World Read Aloud Day on 3/9! Post as your Facebook avatar the LitWorld badge and on March 9th as your Facebook status, respond to the question: "What would you miss most if you could not read or write?" accompanied by #litworld.

Pam Allyn is the founder and executive director of LitWorld.

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