Digital Reading, SDGs | September 12, 2022

The Reading Crisis Is a Girls’ Issue


Educating girls is at the core of many development programs. Although encouraging progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go. More than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women and school closures disproportionately affect girls and mothers. Reading is fundamental, yet in times of crisis, girls are the first to lose access to life-changing stories and education.

The importance of reading for girls and women

Being able to read not only makes girls successful in the classroom, women who are literate benefit from easier access to health and financial resources and can take better care of themselves and their families. A girl who finishes secondary school is less likely to become a child bride or a teenage mother and child mortality rates are much lower in families with literate mothers. For every year a girl spends in school, her earning potential increases by as much as 25% and women reinvest the vast majority of what they earn into their families.

A literate woman not only reads for herself – literacy has been linked to more active political participation, and parents who can read raise healthier, more educated kids. In other words, women who read help build happier and healthier communities for all and contribute to intergenerational progress.

Literacy also serves a crucial purpose – it unlocks the magic of books. One more literate child with access to books is one more reader who’ll discover world-changing stories and ideas. Stories are the very material the human imagination thrives on and can inspire positive change, self-esteem, and resilience in the girls who have the opportunity to read them.

Why is reading a problem in 2022?

Female literacy has made great progress in recent years. The World Bank reports, for example, that while only 47% of adult women living in sub-Saharan Africa could read in 2000, their number grew to 59% by 2019. Similar positive trends are being recorded across the world.

However, there’s still a long way to go. According to UNESCO, two-thirds of the world’s 771 million illiterate people are women. That’s more than the US and Russian populations combined. And although disparities vary, the literacy gender gap is still wide in areas like South Asia (17 percentage points) and the Middle East (15 percentage points.)

It’s not just about learning how to read but also the opportunity to continue doing it. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic risk exacerbating disparities for women. More than 1.6 billion children across 188 countries were affected by school closures in 2020, and at least 30% worldwide did not have access to remote learning. And research shows that when education is disrupted, girls are among the first to leave the classroom and the last to return.

The dropout rate among Malawian girls in secondary education increased by 48% between 2020 and 2021. In Kenya, a survey found that 16 percent of adolescent girls and 8 percent of boys did not return when schools reopened. And as children were left out of school for months, the devastating economic effects of the pandemic also affected their mothers.

The reading crisis and the childcare crisis

More likely to lose their job and earn a lower, more expendable salary, women had to bear the brunt of the childcare crisis that accompanied the pandemic. According to Oxfam, COVID-19 cost women at least $800 billion in lost income in 2020, “equivalent to more than the combined GDP of 98 countries.” In the US, 1 out of 4 women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of child care — twice the rate among men. Overworked and underpaid, mothers are often alone in facing the responsibility of educating their children when they can’t go to school.

A mother sits in the garden holding her child and reading from a smartphone

How you can empower girls through reading

Too many women around the world continue to be denied an education, land, credit, independence and health. Too many girls grow up thinking that a future of hardships and inequality is inevitable.

What if we brought them the stories of women and girls who look and sound like them and have become their own sheroes? What if they were encouraged to dream bigger, bolder, louder futures, and turn fiction into reality? What if we could get and keep girls reading every day, and engaging in learning activities, even when they can’t go to school? What if we gave families affordable, easy-to-use tools that can work around their schedule to support their children’s education at home?

Help stories change the lives of girls around the world

At Worldreader, we believe that a story can change everything. Stories teach us about the world from a young age and help shape the person we grow into and the way we interact with each other. When the right story reaches the right reader, a revolution is started. And the books we curate at Worldreader address critical issues (like violence against women, family planning, and women’s autonomy) with a revolutionary perspective — hope.

But for a story to work its magic, we need to help it travel as far as it can, even in times of crisis. Our Keep Children Reading initiative has made thousands of free books and learning activities available during the pandemic to readers from under-served communities in the US and the Global South via easy-to-use apps that can be enjoyed offline. Girls, boys and parents around the world are using them to fight the reading crisis one story at a time, anytime and anywhere it’s convenient to them.

The habit of reading built during childhood will accompany and support girls throughout their life. With our portable, free resources filled with empowering books and your support, we can build a future where every girl can dream of a free, healthy and fulfilling life. Help us make sure every girl has the tools to build that life for herself at her fingertips.

Are you a parent? Download our free app on your phone or tablet and bond with your kids over stories – offline reading is available so that your family can keep building brighter futures together anytime, anywhere.
Are you a teacher? Partner with us and discover how to use innovative, low-cost technology and world-changing reading programs to empower your students at home and in the classroom.
Are you a reading champion? By supporting our work, you’ll power the stories that ignite the imagination of girls in over 100 countries and help unlock a world of opportunities for their future.