International Day of the Girl: When Grace was 13 years old, she was left alone in a room with no one to look after her.


Grace was 13 when she was abandoned.

She was left in a small house to live by herself with no money, no supervision and no one to take her to the doctor if she got sick.

Her grandmother, who had raised her for the majority of her life, could not look after her anymore.

More than 90 per cent of people in Tanzania, a country that has twice the population of Australia, live on less than $2 a day. Grace didn’t even have that.

She was a girl thrust into an adult world – without the guidance or the skills to navigate it.

Her performance at school was “poor”, Grace told Mamamia. Often, she couldn’t afford to get there, let alone buy a book or a pen. It didn’t take long for her to be “kicked out”, sealing her fate as one of the three million Tanzanian children who never finish school.

Tanzania has one of the lowest rates of secondary school enrolment on the planet. Grace wasn’t the exception – she was the rule.

And then along came Room to Read.

Grace’s story. Post continues below. 

Video by Room to Read

If we truly want to change the world, the non-profit organisation has determined, then the solution lies within decades of research: Teach girls to read.

Room to Read was founded on the belief that, “world change starts with educating children,” and two thirds of the illiterate population are women.

When girls are taught to read, it changes the course of not only their lives, but the future of their communities. Women who can read, research tells us, then teach their children to read.

If we want to make the world a better place – the answer is simple. Start with Grace.

And that’s precisely what Room to Read did.

They provided the supplies, from stationary to a uniform. They enrolled her in a life skills program, which explores communication, self-awareness, empathy, confidence, time management, and ultimately helps girls decide what job they want to pursue. They developed her skills in reading, writing and mathematics. They partnered her with a mentor named Neema, a young woman who also went through the Room to Read program, and despite her qualifications as a lawyer, now works as a social mobiliser.

Grace is in senior school now, and next year will enrol in college. She wants to be an economist, she told Mamamia, with a brilliant, eager smile across her face. And she wants to “help other girls reach their goals… just like Room to Read helped me.”

Neema, Grace’s mentor, has worked with hundreds of girls.


She was the only girl, out of her class of 100, to go on to secondary school.

Her good friend, she told Mamamia, dropped out because she was pregnant. Her sister dropped out because she wanted to get married.

“I can’t make my friend go back to school,” she reflected. “But I can make other people stay in school and help other girls, girls just like my friend, have a chance at a good future.”

Neema explained that you cannot force a girl to stay in school. “She has to choose,” she said. It is her job to teach girls problem solving skills, “guiding them through the process to get to their own solution.”

She teaches the girls about health, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, subjects most know nothing about.

Neema can understand why girls stop going to school. Often, it’s for economic reasons, just like Grace. They live really far away from school and can’t afford to get there, or don’t have the means to purchase the books. Room to Read circumvents that problem by providing material support.

The girls who fall pregnant or want to marry young do so because they see themselves as having no other choice. They’ve never seen anything different.

Since Neema began, she has helped reduced the drop out rate of girls from 16 per cent, to just one per cent.

“We understand that we cannot work with just the girls and not the parents,” she told Mamamia. Neema spends a lot of her time going to the girls’ homes and speaking to their families, convincing them of the importance of education.

Neema. Image supplied by Room to Read.
Neema. Image supplied by Room to Read.

She has seen first hand what happens when we invest in girls' education. "Most of them now want to do things that will help other people," she said excitedly. "Some of them want to be doctors. Some want to be economists. Some want to be social mobilisers like me. Teachers... nurses."


But when a girl is taught to read, it doesn't only open her up to career possibilities. It fundamentally changes the way she thinks.

It was George R. R. Martin who wrote, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one." The same, unsurprisingly, applies to girls.

When asked what her favourite thing to read was, Neema's face lit up.

Just yesterday she read a "small book about feminism," she explained.

"I'm very passionate about equal rights, that people should be treated equally. That's something I want to do," she said.

Then, she explained how the book changed how she thought: "There are these little things that we always see, and we either just ignore them, because we think maybe it's normal. We can't talk about it because everyone does it and it's absolutely normal...

"But when you read about it, you think, 'this should change'. We can start doing something to change that. It's interesting and uplifting."

Reading provides us with insight and uncovers universal human truths. It helps us to explore our hopes and fears, and shapes how we see the world around us. It inspires us to dream beyond our immediate environment.

Reading, as Neema put it, is the best gift you can give.

And girls, all over the world, will never take it for granted.