Afghanistan Reads! | Afghanistan Lowalee! Community Libraries, Literacy and Books
Literacy rates among women and girls in Afghanistan have seen minimal growth in the last decade, despite the re-establishment of basic education for girls. This may be attributed in part to the lack of local language print literacy material in the country, a lack of emphasis on reading in out-of-school contexts, and insufficient opportunities to read within and outside of school environments. Too often, literacy programs approach reading in a limited sense, such as textbook reading for school, which limits the development of reading fluency in learners.
Afghanistan Reads! | Afghanistan Lowalee! responds to this situation by working to reinforce literacy skills, nurture a culture of reading, and foster independent, lifelong learning by combining literacy classes with small libraries for female adult literacy students. The program also supports teachers to improve literacy pedagogy and adopt librarianship practices into their teaching, and includes an intensive coaching program for literacy teachers focused on reading promotion. Further, it integrates life skills education across the curriculum, giving women access to practical, hands-on information relevant to their immediate needs, on topics such as First Aid, child health, nutrition, and rights.
“I learned more about teaching methods. Our capacity is built up and our knowledge is increased, thanks to this training.
The trainers were very intellectual and we learned more about teaching techniques.” ~ literacy teacher trainee
The AR! program has been running for many years now. Some of the key lessons we have learned:
Literacy requires ongoing practice. Cultivating a love of reading helps sustain and grow a culture of literacy and reading with purpose, and this requires access to books of interest and relevance to the reader, and to spaces that promote reading, outside of schools and across everyday life.
Literacy should be “alive." School-based literacy learning must be bridged to learners’ out-of-school lives. Reading a textbook may not necessarily lead to drawing meaning from a text.
Literacy classes can be stepping stones to formal education. Gaining foundational literacy skills facilitates entry into the formal education system, for both women and men. Literacy classes should offer assistance to all students to enroll them in an appropriate grade level upon reaching a certain literacy threshold, if desired. Literacy classes must be purposefully structured to facilitate transition into regular school. The AR! project uses a tool called the Personal Learning Plan to that end.
Literacy is inter-generational. All of the available evidence tells us that literate mothers raise literate daughters. Thus, focusing on female adult literacy is a strategy to enable girls’ schooling. The project includes strategies to explicitly link parental literacy with support to children’s education, such as encouraging women to read to their children.
A room of her own. Women in Afghanistan have few spaces available to them outside of the private sphere, resulting in limited opportunities to interact with other women outside their families, to exchange ideas and access peer learning, and to find support networks—all critical elements of gaining confidence and independence. Libraries can play a critical role in this regard, giving women and girls a rare opportunity to escape domestic burdens and to focus on their own self-development and their own dreams.
Community buy-in is essential. CW4WAfghan only opens libraries upon invitation from communities, usually after community members have seen or visited one of our projects somewhere else. We check that there is widespread support for the project in the site, and when there are individuals or groups unsupportive of the initiative, we don’t work there. This policy has ensured that none of our projects have faced any significant security concerns.
Cost-sharing. We ask communities to contribute in-kind to the project to instigate ownership over project outcomes. Usually, this comes in the form of the community contributing the space for the library and literacy centre.
Mentorship, training and monitoring. Most literacy learning programs in Afghanistan do not include a library component, and do not actively promote reading beyond the class textbook. For this reason, even Afghans who have experience working in literacy need support to effectively integrate library services and reading promotion into literacy programming. The project places great emphasis on building skills within teachers to undertake reading promotion activities, and our pedagogy is one that is hands-on rather than classroom-focused. In the previous project, we found training had limited impact, and one-on-one mentoring, hands-on practice, and exposure visits to libraries had greater bearing on the uptake of teachers’ skills in making use of the libraries in teaching.
Securing rural livelihoods. Rural households in Afghanistan, particularly female-headed households, face many vulnerabilities that put families at risk of poverty and create an environment of instability that is not conducive to the pursuit of personal goals like literacy. Households are most at risk when they rely primarily on a single livelihood, and lack fallback options in times of drought, climate change, erosion, or other natural disasters, as well as in the face of rising input costs, or as a result of conflict.
We are very appreciative of the close partnership with The Linda Norgrove Foundation in the UK, which began in 2011 and resulted in the successful launch of our Afghanistan Reads! / Afghanistan Lowalee! Community Library and Literacy Program. The Norgroves live on the remote Isle of Lewis, an island off the west coast of Scotland. The Linda Norgrove Foundation was established in October 2010 in memory of Linda Norgrove, who was devoted to ensuring that the people of Afghanistan would achieve prosperity and stability as their country was rebuilt. Her parents, John and Lorna Norgrove, set up the Foundation to continue her work. Her parents explain how Linda was completely committed to her development work and she loved Afghanistan and its people.
The Foundation’s primary goal is to help women and children in Afghanistan, the innocent victims of the decades of conflict in the poorest country in the world outside Africa. LNF is developing programmes with special emphasis on providing education and incomes for women because of the belief that these are most likely to create a positive lasting change for the country. (photo: John and Lorna Norgrove)