International Literacy Day: A Tale of Two Girls

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.

International Literacy Day: A girl sits at a desk, looking at the board in front of her, wearing a white school uniform.

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.

A girl sits at a desk reading a book in a brick room with pictures hung on the walls.

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

A girl stands at a chalkboard, writing, while children sit at desks watching.

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.

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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

A girl sits against a lime green wall, reading a book.

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.

A girl holds a floral scarf, blowing behind her, while she turns and smiles at the camera.

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

A boy in a red sweater sits at a desk in a classroom, reading a book.

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.

6 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Avatar
    Elizabeth Deal March 8, 2020

    I really enjoyed reading and learning about this wonderful outreach for less fortunate children around the world. I have been on multiple mission trips to countries stricken with poverty and seen first-hand how families live on the basics and just survive. Having an organization like this to try and make the world aware of the poverty and how they can help is an amazing statement. Taking this a step further and enriching these children with literacy opportunities and helping them get the education that they all deserve goes above all. These children you are helping can’t help where they live, what conditions they deal with on a daily basis, and what their parents are able to provide for them. It is critical that these children are able to have an equal opportunity for an education just as any other, not just because of their economic or cultural status. If these children are able to learn how to read and write, it will open up a number of doors for them to be able to obtain secure employment that will allow them to raise families in more stable conditions and teach their own children one day. We all too often see these generational conditions relating to poverty and if this organization can help put children in school settings to break this loop of poverty, one by one they can change the world.

    1. Mackenzie
      Mackenzie March 9, 2020

      Elizabeth, thank you so much for your amazing perspective! It is such a blessing to hear how your experience of seeing poverty firsthand has allowed you to have such a unique viewpoint! In everything that we do, we always want to uphold the dignity of the children we work with. Like you said, these children didn’t choose the poverty they are in, but through the local church, they can have the tools they need to overcome that poverty! We are so grateful for your insightful comment! God bless you!

  2. Avatar
    Kimberly A Heath March 8, 2020

    I am a middle school teacher in the United States. This article touches my heart and reminds me of a recent conversation with my students. A couple of weeks ago, I had my students watch Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the United Nations. I gave them a list of specific items to look for in her speech. I paused the speech at various times to check their understanding. I realized very quickly that students in the United States take their education for granted. They could not understand or believe that school is not free to everyone in the world. Unfortunately, many of them could not understand that she was willing to die for her right to go to school to get an education. The comments that some students made about “having to go to school” is an embarrassment to our society. The more we listened to her speech, the more explaining I had to do. I think I am going to share your article with these students because it shows that education is a privilege and not a right for everyone. I hope these conversations will change how my students feel about “having to go to school.”

  3. Avatar
    Michelle Craddock March 8, 2020

    It breaks my heart when I think of the opportunities we take for granted in the U.S. We have children that don’t want to go to school. They would prefer to stay home and play video games, or they say that they missed the bus. Mom did feel like taking them or mom doesn’t have a car to take them. I know of some students that have a lot of absences. They have no idea of the value of education. People laugh at me because I explain and talk to second graders of college and scholarship. They are only in second grade they say but I want to plant a seed. They must do well starting now. There are children who would LOVE to take your place. If I could transport them and switch places for an hour. They would come back with a deeper appreciation of what is being offered to them. The parents and children in Indonesia, Uganda and other countries under the life-changing value. Just look at how each child is astutely listening. They are all engaged in the lesson. I am a strong advocate for girls to get their education. They will not have to rely on a man to provide for them. Their education will also mean their independence. My sister had the opportunity to have her college tuition paid for. She didn’t take that opportunity. My older sister and I weren’t offered that opportunity and we paid for our own education. When I think about a child being sent home because she couldn’t pay the school fee makes me mad. I’m paying out of pocket for the degree. I plan to join Compassion when I’m done.

  4. Avatar
    Dale September 5, 2019

    This blog hits home because I have 3 kids in Indonesia. God bless the larger good, a small monthly gift can mean. Spouncer ship is truly life changing! I have been blessed much more than I have given. God bless the kids !

  5. Avatar
    Michelle September 5, 2019

    I was told that Compassion cuts membership at 9 years of age if not registered in program by that age. If the girl in Uganda would have registered in time than she would be in Compssion Center waiting for a sponser.

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