09/07/2014 09:55 EDT | Updated 11/07/2014 05:59 EST

How Adult Literacy Is Transforming a Village

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In a mountain village perched high above the booming city of Xichang, students scribble eagerly in their notebooks under the lights of their newly built classroom. Their mouths whisper the syllables of each Mandarin character that their teacher etches on the chalkboard, and their eyes light up as they recognize the phrase, "Xin nian kuai le." They've spoken the greeting every New Year they can remember, but only now can they read and write it.

Outside the windows of Waer Primary School, night has fallen. The students are exhausted but undeterred -- they know what these basic literacy skills mean for their future and their families. And they're excited to share what they've learned with their children, who will occupy these same desks when morning comes several hours later.

This is the adult literacy class -- held evenings and weekends -- in this resilient community of 5,000 marginalized members of the Yi minority in south-central China. In Waer, 70 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men cannot read or write, but the village is united in efforts to change that.

September 8 is International Literacy Day, marked with events in schools and communities around the world, and highlighted by a United Nations celebration and conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite the promising gains of the UN's worldwide "Literacy as Freedom" decade that ended in 2012, more than 770 million people over the age of 15 cannot read or write. Two-thirds of them are women, and many are in countries like China and India with national literacy rates that are vastly improved, but that still have forgotten pockets of desperate poverty and illiteracy.

Imagine being cut off from the world around you -- unable to read a contract or count your pay, to read the newspaper or write an email. Imagine a community where the majority of citizens are unable to find decent work to support their families.

Literacy is the foundation of sustainable development. Individuals are empowered to participate in their community's economic, social and political life. The community benefits from the ideas and contributions of all its members. A literate society can more ably tackle its challenges -- from poverty and health, to crime and exclusion, to natural disasters.

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake partially destroyed Waer's tiny school, polluted the already tenuous water supply and left residents even more isolated than before. A 20 kilometre round trip to the school in a nearby town reinforced the local practice of removing girls from school after only three years of education, so they could help farm and finish household chores.

Today, many of the parents from the adult literacy classes have used their newfound knowledge of written Mandarin to secure jobs in the city that were previously closed to them. They are no longer vulnerable to unfair contracts and can open bank accounts for their salary. And they are determined to ensure their children won't ever have to face these same challenges.

Elementary school enrolment has reached a new high of 400 children -- a hundred more than last year -- including many who dropped out and re-enrolled once their parents had a change of heart, a chance to experience the value of education. Parents donated the land for the new classroom from their own farms and participated together in its construction. They even pooled their money together to add a kindergarten teacher to those teaching Grades 1 through 6.

The new classroom was just the first step for Waer. The community is working with the local government to locate a new source of clean water so the village's daughters can sit in class instead of walking long distances to the next closest well. They're hiring a doctor from a nearby town to train one of the schoolteachers in first aid, nutrition, hygiene and basic health. And they're seeking alternative income sources to supplement their farming output and relieve the financial pressure put on families that often forces children to leave school.

Appreciation of the value of literacy and education has swept up the whole village of Waer and others like it in China and around the world. No matter how old you are, or what time of day your classes start, literacy unlocks a future of opportunity -- one syllable at a time.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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