Knowledge is the food of the soul. – Plato
As September 8th was International Literacy Day, I was reminded of a trip I took to a remote village in Bangladesh a few years ago. I had gone to visit a successful Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP) that was implemented by the organization I worked for at the time. The program—spread across several poor villages—focused on literacy, numeracy and maternal and child health issues. It had been running for over five years and had successfully taught, trained and empowered hundreds of women.
I had the good fortune of meeting a few of the women who had first graduated from the program and hearing about how they were now making extraordinary differences in their worlds. Crossed-legged, we sat on the floor in a small, four-walled, cement building. One-by-one, they proudly told me of their shared experience. The excitement in their voices was palpable. They explained the barriers (lack of support from family, negative cultural attitudes towards women learning, time constraints, etc.) they initially had to overcome to join the program; the freedom and joy they experienced as the learned how to read; and the ways they were using their knowledge to better their well-being and that of their families and communities.
Their determination had effectively turned their struggles into triumphs. Many had started their own businesses, created money lending institutions and together they had started schools in their communities. Their hope was for their children, particularly their little girls, to learn to read and to live better, more informed lives.
While listening to their stories I remembered the words of a young Afghan girl who had said, upon learning to read, “learning to read is like walking into light from darkness.” The heroic examples set by these women whose bravery and determination enabled them to bring light to their community, speak to the universal themes of courage, human rights and empowerment. I was so inspired to meet them.
Over the many years that I have worked in international development, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many remote villages all around the world. If I’ve learned anything from my work abroad it is this, the most efficient and effective way to alleviate poverty and reduce population pressures in the developing world is to empower women and girls through literacy and education, economic opportunity, and open discussions of basic human rights.
We all can do things within our power to shine light into the darkest corners of the world still emerging from the shadows of poverty and injustice.
Below are a few photographs of the remarkable women from the empowerment program.
Below, I’ve included a few photographs from another project, a literacy program for street children, I visited while in Bangladesh.
Below is a photograph of a brave girl who decided to start a little library in her community.
Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential. ― Kofi Annan