For International Literacy Day on Sept. 8, I’m remembering some amazing kids who haven’t had the educational opportunities I’ve had. Traveling to low- and middle-income countries as a writer with Compassion, I’ve met children who are out of school and in the streets, their parents unable to afford school tuition, uniforms, supplies and transportation. Other kids I’ve met are enrolled in school, but their teachers are unreliable or under-educated.
Every child I meet deserves the same access to quality education. But they don’t all get it.
I want to tell you the stories of two girls I have met. The first is 10-year-old Halena in Indonesia, who reminds me of education’s power to end generational poverty.
Halena lives on a remote island called Sumba, where her parents work as subsistence farmers. Her dad, Fransiskus, and mom, Marta, earn about $45 a month selling the produce they grow. Although the family usually has food to eat, there’s not enough money for medicine, transportation, clothing — or education.
Like many adults on Sumba, Marta and Fransiskus are not literate. When they were growing up, the most important education they could get was learning from their parents how to grow crops. As Indonesia developed and began to invest in its school system, the culture shifted. Now, most Indonesian kids finish primary school.
I visited Halena’s public school and looked in on classrooms of children in red-and-white uniforms, raising their hands and writing in workbooks. It struck me that I was seeing something big: the first generation on this island to get a formal education.
Watching Halena do homework later that day at a desk in her bedroom, I thought of how I take my own literacy for granted back in Colorado. But spending time with Halena’s parents reminded me that not everyone has equal opportunity to education.
“We cannot read or write,” Marta told me. “But seeing my children able to write and read — that has made our hearts feel joy.”
Literacy and Multilingualism
Another cool thing I noticed about Halena’s education: She knows more than one language. She spoke Indonesian, the most common language in her country, the indigenous language of her parents, and also some English.
As the workforce gets more digital and globalized, knowing more than one language is more important than ever. Because of this, UNESCO chose “literacy and multilingualism” as its theme for International Literacy Day 2019. Students preparing to join a competitive workforce as adults will have a big advantage if they speak more than one language. Employers will be looking for multilingual workers to help them grow in the global marketplace.
Teaching language skills to children prepares them to find jobs as adults that pay well and are fulfilling. They will have choices their parents never had. Halena will be able to decide whether to be a farmer like her parents or to choose another profession. The language skills she’s learning at school and her Compassion center give her even more choices.
The Bigger Story: International Literacy Day Global Report Card
I’ve seen on an individual level how literacy and education impact children living in poverty. But what’s the story on a bigger level?
In 2015, members of the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which they would reach by 2030. The fourth goal: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. To find out whether the world is on track to meet that goal, UNESCO looked at indicators like out-of-school rates, skills for work, early childhood learning and school-completion rates. The 2019 report found that the world is behind in its commitments.
We are only a third of the way toward meeting the deadline.
“This is the year that the generation of students that should finish secondary school by 2030 should be entering school for the first time,” the report says. “Yet, in low-income countries, only 60% of children complete primary school, while in some regions the percentage of students who achieve minimum proficiency in reading is even falling.”
I saw the face of those stats in the second girl I want to introduce you to today.
I visited Uganda this year to meet families whose lives had been changed by people who gave through Compassion’s Gift Catalog. While visiting a home in a dry, remote village, I walked over to meet a girl who’d been watching us curiously from the dirt road. She was holding a blue workbook with her name written on the front. With the help of a translator, I found out she was 12 and not in Compassion’s program (the one in her village was at capacity). The photographer I was with snapped this beautiful picture of her.
I asked why she wasn’t in school on a weekday. She said the teacher had sent her home because she couldn’t pay the school fee.
Her heartbreaking story made it clear we have more work to do if we believe that every child deserves access to a quality education.
Literacy Is a Human Right
This International Literacy Day, I feel so much hope for Halena in Indonesia and all the sponsored kids around the world. Sponsorship through Compassion is giving them the invaluable chance to get an education and excel at school. Learning to read and write — especially in more than one language — prepares them to be self-sufficient adults able to support their families and teach their children to read.
But on International Literacy Day I’ll also remember the girl I met in Uganda — and the 262 million kids around the world who are out of school, according to UNESCO. If you’re interested in joining the fight for their right to education, you can learn more here.
“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope,” said Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary-General. “It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty. … For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.”
Photos by Chuck Bigger, Daron Short and Craig Thompson.