Over 80% of young men in Zambia (aged 15–24) are literate, compared with less than 70% of girls. The Zambian government has made a commitment to improving access to schooling and wants more children, especially girls, to continue into secondary education, and you can read about this in a separate article.
However, there is still much work to do to improve the quality of the education system, which suffers from a lack of facilities and resources. Many schools require more classrooms and equipment, and teachers suffer from insufficient training. There is also a shortage of learning materials, including text books and reading books.
As well as the need for more books, one not-for-profit organisation, Room to Read, has identified how many published books are inappropriate for children learning to read in developing countries. The mission of the organisation is therefore to improve literacy by producing books in local languages, for example Swahili and Afrikaans in Africa. In addition, their aim is to make sure children want to read by publishing the right kind of stories and information.
To this end, in the 10 countries where the organisation operates, Room To Read hires a local language programme officer to oversee the publication of new books. This person is responsible for building links with academics, education representatives in government and local authors, and setting up committees to advise on the production of new books.
Speaking to the Guardian this month, John Wood, a former Microsoft executive and the founder of Room to Read said “if kids in Zambia are reading a book about a white Christmas and carolling and snowflakes and....sitting around the fireplace, it’s not going to make sense to them.” Instead, Mr Wood believes youngsters need to have books which feature stories and events to which Zambian children can relate and pictures of kids and teachers who “look like them”.
In Zambia, Room to Read was set up in 2007. It focuses on improving access to reading resources through a school library programme which supports over 300 libraries. In addition, the organisation’s representative in Zambia promotes gender equality through a Girls’ Education programme. This supports over 600 secondary school pupils in acquiring the life skills they need. As Room to Read understands all too well, educating girls is the most effective way to tackle poverty and literacy gives women a powerful tool to do that.