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International Literacy Day 2022: Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces

Literacy is one of the most talked about topics these days and why not? It is one of the most crucial aspects of one’s life, growth, and development. However, everyone does not have equal access to education and literacy places. Maybe you can Google anything and everything within a second but someone in a remote village might not even know what google is or how to spell it. The gap is immaculate because being educated is promoted but where to get access to the learning spaces is a question many won’t be able to answer. 

This year the United Nations utilized the International Literacy Day 2022 to address how crucial it is to focus on literacy learning spaces along with education as a whole. THE ANTS organized an event around the same to discuss how we as individuals and as a community can contribute to transforming the literacy learning spaces to make them more accessible and equitable. 

The guests who were thrilled to be a part of the event and share their journeys were: 

  • Gabriella Oliver: Director of Women Lead Movement  
  • Sabbah Haji: Educationist & Trustee, Haji Education Foundation

Since Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces is something we need to start discussions about in 2022- the event started with Samar Afzal, the moderator from THE ANTS team, addressing the elephant in the room by asking the guests what loopholes and gaps encouraged them to work towards ‘Literacy’ since it is a vast topic with many things attached to it. 

What is Literacy? 

Sabbah Haji started by telling the audience what literacy is to her. 

She summed it up by telling us that to her it’s access, equality, and the only way to bring everyone to a standard level. She further added that literacy and education is the platform to bridge the gap between the different strata of society by providing everyone with equal opportunities. According to her, literacy is the only way where one can rise up with just merit regardless of the social-economic background. 

When Samar Afzal asked Sabbah Haji what made her go back to her home- the mountains and start her school Sabbah was thrilled to share her journey. She shared that she belongs to a remote village in Jammu & Kashmir and the village is so distant from all the development that even the roads were built in 2022 only. 

She shared that even though she was brought up in Dubai her family was still connected to their hometown. It was the stark difference in her and her cousins’ (who grew up in the hometown itself) personalities that made her notice the need of shifting from Bangalore to her hometown. 

Sabbah and her family build up the school brick by brick. The journey started from the two rooms at her place which they converted into classrooms and we have been growing ever since. Sabbah’s journey is indeed an inspiration for all of us.

To our guest, Gabriella Oliver, literacy is not just the ability to read and write but also the ability to capacitate an individual with self-development skills, and cognitive abilities to make responsible decisions in order to advance personal growth. She believes that without literacy skills one would be in serious trouble. Quoting her, “over 750 million adults cannot read or write and that is not a small fraction- they are not only destructive to the broader society but also to themselves. That is why literacy and programs encouraging it are so important.” 

Encouragement factor to work for the literacy of all and how society takes the initiatives

To understand how society takes these literacy-promoting programs Samar asked our guests to tell the kind of people they came across while they were doing their bit for the community and the kind of mindset that people had. Most importantly she asked what it took to motivate and make people understand why literacy is important. 

Gabriella had a lot to say about the same since she is from South Africa, one of the countries with the lowest literacy rate in the world. She explains that it is because South Africa has a very poor education system that does not promote the culture of reading. She says that there are insufficient resources, especially in public schools.  She further adds that the two-tier educational system in South Africa makes it even worse- private schools are well resourced and receive the required things like books on time. While in public schools the books do not arrive on time or at all, and there are incompetent and I’ll equip educators who are unable to communicate with the learners. 

She also says that poverty in the country is also a major barrier when it comes to accessing quality education in South Africa. This situation became way more adverse because of the pandemic since the dropout rate increased at that time and the sole goal of the students was to find employment to survive. Gabriella makes the audience understand that she sympathizes with the students, she understands their situation and it is the government that needs to promote education and encourage people to study. She adds that it is important for the government to make education popular not only because it is important to survive economically but also to build a safe environment for young girls. 

She believes a reading culture needs to be cultivated in South Africa. An emphasis on curriculum development needs to be done to avoid reducing drug abuse and teenage pregnancies which ruin the childhood of the children. All and all education must be promoted along with its benefits. 

Literacy is very very important for everyone and it’s a human right.

Sabbah Haji, Educationist & Trustee, Haji Education Foundation

This answer from Gabriella prompted Samar to ask another question to Gabriella. She took the opportunity to ask that everything is being digitized these days, stating the example of a friend from India who was learning to sing online during the pandemic. However, not everyone had access to an electronic device and internet- Samar asked if Gabriella has come across anything of this sort and how is she planning to address this challenge in society. 

Gabriella felt that this was a very crucial question that needed to be asked. She says that there are school kids who do not have access to basic educational material like textbooks and pencils let alone the internet and electronic devices which are now needed for active learning. Covid has also had a very negative impact on students’ attitudes. She adds that these were the struggles that were hindering the participation of the children but the times were so bad that people were unable to arrange even a time meal so education definitely took a backseat since staying alive was the first concern. 

She says that she expects this issue to be resolved with help from the government and the global community. She tells that people across the world need to come forward and donate to the community to promote and make education a success in South Africa because education is a need not a luxury and education should be for all. 

Jammu & Kashmir is the hometown of both Sabbah Haji and Samer Afzal and they had a lot to discuss about how to handle resistance from society and ensure that kids come to school instead of seeking employment as Gabriella discussed.

Sabbah starts by telling that the educational system is horrifying in the region which she hails from. She explains that even though there are teachers and public schools in remote villages there is still no education. There are generations of people coming out of school and still not being educated and this is what is the most petrifying part. 

She says that J&K is a region where parents are hungry for their kids to get an education and that is one of the reasons that encouraged her to give to the community. People have now realized that education is a stepping stone. 

She says that the community of her village was very supportive, they said they’ll enroll their children in the school and encouraged us to start with it. She adds that however certain things still hold them back like gender bias and that’s when we had to find a solution. Sabbah says that she and her mother made it a point that they will enroll a boy only if his sister is enrolled too. Furthermore, another way that helps them enroll more girls is that they receive an education free of charge for the girl if 2-3 children from the same family are enrolled in the school. 

Our audience was thoroughly engaged in the discussion since it interested everyone that how we can give back to the community by taking small steps from our end. 

Sabbah also quotes that the trust people of her village had in her family made this initiative possible. It would have been impossible to run a school in some other village since trust is the first requirement for it. She says that the experience was surreal for the parents since they never saw their kids being educated and parents joined on day 1 to see the classes going on. 

Sabbah believes that more than infrastructure and buildings what is more important is the quality teachers. She expects the best from the teachers at her school and ensures that quality is not compromised. Sabbah affirms that every child is different and that having the same criteria to judge everyone is not right. Quoting her, “it feels terrible to me as I run the school we have to have the same academic line and criteria to judge everyone. We want to give the children some exposure but we cannot since that would be way beyond our system and eventually children will have to come back to give board exams for instance.” 

Sabbah Haji also agrees with Gabriella Oliver that she fails to see how top leaders of the world and policymakers are unable to figure out that this (literacy) is the most urgent requirement. 

She also says that technology helps people grow but it is also a limiting factor and a hurdle for many when it comes to education. 

Online education- Boon or bane? 

Since the technology was brought up Samar Afzal had another interesting question to ask our guests. She addresses that we are in a fix and not every child can adapt to the digital world and online teaching. She asked the guests what measures or Plan B did they opt for to ensure that the education of the children is not compromised. 

To this, Sabbah Haji replied without flinching that digital education did not work for them. Some children did not have smartphones, those did not have the money to spare on mobile data, or there was only one common phone for the family and these issues made digital education impossible. 

She says only face to face teaching worked for them and even during covid, they would take classes in physical mode taking the proper precautions. They were lucky to carry on with their endeavor since covid did not reach their village. She clearly states that online education is a no-no not only for rural areas but in urban areas as well. It has not been very successful since kids lack patience and get distracted very easily. 

To take the discussion on a lighter note Samar Afzal asked Sabbah Haji to share an interesting story of one of her students telling how literacy helps children and society as a whole. 

Sabbah states that even though the internet might not have helped them in teaching, it definitely facilitated them in providing students with the resources and keeping them up to date with the happenings of the world. It was a tool that aided their teachers. Sabbah along with her family has built a library over the years and has helped children cultivate the habit of reading. 

She tells that one of her students wrote a character sketch and review of the book that she read in the library and we posted that review on social media handles tagging J.K Rowling. It Was an effort from J.K Rowlings’s end, she sent a huge gift box for the entire class and appreciated the effort by the students. 

Literacy in theory and practicality (Gender roles and daily lives)

Samar Afzal had an interesting take on literacy. She says that there is a lot of difference between being literate and being educated. This difference comes from the background one has grown up in, the way society is conditioning us as individuals, discrimination, and much more. She asked for input on the same from our guests. 

Gabriella was glad that Samer brought up this question. Quoting Gabriella, “Being educated and literate does not necessarily make one a logical person, there are many highly educated people out there who say the most absurd things one can think of and are even unable to reason properly or give logical explanations.”  

Gabriella shared that lately she was having a discussion with one of her friends about GBV (Gender-based Violence) and women are being abused by men in institutions of higher education. It brings us to the question of why a highly educated man, with access to all the resources, cannot understand that hurting another human is just not right. Even though the men are highly educated yet these incidents keep occurring on campus. She tells that it is when she realized that another hurdle to education is the culture and its teachings. 

The society was predominantly patriarchal and the males are not ready to give up their privileges even today. She says we need to find the root cause of such incidents and need to find what induces this behavior and eliminate it since physical abuse is one thing but psychological abuse is something that is lethal and carries its scar with them for the rest of their lives. 

Gabriella further adds that this is why the governments need to promote and offer holistic training and capacity building to young women.

I don’t think we should be begging to have access to schools and begging for pencils and books, we are entitled to them merely on the basis that we exist and our lives matter.

Gabriella Oliver, Director of Women Lead Movement

Samar adds to Gabriella’s point by stating the difference between the third world and first world countries. People in third world countries are still struggling for basic necessities while in first world countries women are going head to head and toe to toe with women. Quoting Samar Afzal,” when I moved to Europe and saw women doing exactly what men are doing I felt that now I am in the right space. There are these different corners and parts of the world where we see a huge difference in the gender roles and their flexibility.” 

Samar further adds that creating a space for people to talk about the things they have been through is important since literacy is also about letting people be aware of their basic human rights. Samer then asks the question to Sabbah if there is this kind of discrimination happening where she comes from and if there is a difference between the generations. 

Sabbah starts by stating that there is definitely a difference between the older generation and the younger ones. The upcoming generation has access to more information than the older ones ever had. Quoting her, “so if I talk about my kids at my school then we have been actively breaking the old chains of patriarchy, misogyny, gender discrimination, and cut and dried out gender roles.” 

She states that they start it young and it has worked magnificently, anything that you want to bring to the children they accept without any judgments or bringing stereotyped gender roles into play. She tells that even though there is still some pushback from their homes the change is there it’s slow and steady but it is evident. 

The discussion and the event motivated Samar as well to open up about how she also wants to contribute to the community and society. Push youngsters to study and give feathers to them. 

Samar also appreciated the efforts that Sabbah and Gabriella are doing for the community to make a change. Both Sabbah and Gabriella had few words to say to the audience on the same. 

Sabbah connected to the audience on a personal level. Quoting her,” prioritize education and not just book learning but let your kids’ mind be opened, do not restrict your kids in learning, and don’t push prejudices down their minds.” 

Gabriella agreed with Sabbah but in addition to that, she also stated that most of the responsibility lies in the hands of the government- to invest in education and to take up leadership roles in ensuring that its society is capable and equipped and lifted. She believes that on an individual level even small efforts like donating books can make a lot of difference.

Spread the wings and just fly.

Samar Afzal

The event was a huge success since both the guests and the audience engaged in the much-needed conversation.

Here is the video link to the live event:

International Literacy Day 2022: Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces – Online Event by THE ANTS