BELGRADE, SERBIA—There used to be a popular slogan back in the 1980s on everything from bumper stickers to book marks and t-shirts that stated: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” That adage always comes back to me when I am in a country where I can’t decipher the alphabet—from Israel and Greece to China and Serbia—and it puts into perspective for me how hard and scary it must be to live in a world where you don’t know how to read.
I remember once being in Kiev for work and realizing that the taxi driver had dropped me off in the wrong location for a meeting. I called my interviewee to tell her I was running late and when she asked me where I was I told her, “I don’t even know how to tell you the street name because I have no idea how to read the letters.” Luckily I found someone on the street who spoke English and could tell her where I was but I felt very helpless and vulnerable.
One of the more interesting places on the globe for me when it comes to language is Serbia and parts of Bosnia. During and after the wars in the Balkans, even language and the alphabet became politicized. Driving around Bosnia, you could always tell when you entered a predominantly Serbian area because all the signage shifted to Cyrillic. It’s intriguing to me that in Serbia today –the country where my husband comes from– the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are used interchangeably. In Belgrade, for example, it’s pretty much all in Latin text yet in the countryside you can go through villages where everything is in Cyriilic.
I was recently in a store in my husband’s hometown to buy some juice (“sok” in Serbian) and half the products were labeled in Cyrillic, half in English. I could easily tell that one was orange juice, another apple, by the art on the boxes. And I stood there thinking that this is how many people who are illiterate grocery shop—by either memorizing what a label looks like on a product or if they are lucky, a helpful picture to give a hint to what it is.
In 2010 UNESCO released a report stating that the global literacy rate stood at 84%, which had increased from 75% in 1990. That all sounds rather well and good except that in numbers it means that across the world 775 million people cannot read, two-thirds of whom are women. International organizations have made great strides to improve things like girls’ access to schooling through things like the Millennium Development Goals and there has been some significant progress in primary school enrolment and attendance rates. But there are still an estimated 52 million primary school children who are not in primary school, 31 million of whom are girls with the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa.
All this to say that she-files.com this year is focusing on literacy and reading: we want to shine a light on global organizations and individuals that are working to improve literacy rates for women and girls, we want to highlight female writers who are creating wonderful pieces of literature and groups—from book clubs to female-run libraries— that are encouraging more women and girls to read. We are entitling it the “Women Who Write” campaign and we launched it in January with an excellent essay on female travel writers by award-winning journalist and author Michelle Jana Chan.
Kristin and I are both writers and both mothers to daughters whom we hope are growing up with a love of reading and writing. We feel this is an important issue to focus on this year (our stories won’t be only about literacy and reading but you’ll see it as a recurring theme throughout 2019). And we also want to encourage you to write for us—we set this webzine up to not only share the stories of women and girls who are doing amazing things across the globe but also a space to champion female writers. So if you have a story you want to tell –for example maybe how you decided to start your own bookclub when you moved to a new city or how you volunteer to teach refugee women in your community how to read—please get in touch. We would love to hear from you. Keep reading!
Photos courtesy Shutterstock: 1) Woman reading on bed; 2) Girls at a school in Stone Town, Zanzibar