LIFE: ‘Literacy is a basic human right’

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LIFE Executive Director Juliet Austin speaks at Government House on Wednesday for International Literacy Day. - Photo: Kayla Young

After more than a year of global pandemic, books continue to serve as a silent support, providing an outlet to manage the uncertainty of the outside world.

LIFE Executive Director Juliet Austin celebrated the power of reading and literacy, not only as an escape but as a tool for social change, on Wednesday alongside Governor Martyn Roper and wife Elisabeth Roper at Government House.

“Books are the unsung heroes of this pandemic, providing much-needed escape where children can travel the world on the Hogwarts train or on the wings of an albatross,” Austin told guests. “Fictitious worlds, especially fantasy, offer powerful coping tools for children to manage stress and anxiety.”

Wednesday marked UNESCO’s International Literacy Day, drawing attention to the global and local challenges that remain to uplift the world’s estimated 773 million non-literate people.

While UNESCO notes that covid has put many literacy programmes on pause, efforts continue in Cayman through the charity LIFE, an acronym for Literacy Is For Everyone.

Since its foundation in 2012, LIFE has donated around 47,000 books to children in Cayman. Initiatives like in-classroom libraries and the paired-reading programme are making books more accessible to Cayman’s students. But Austin recognises work remains to uplift children, especially boys, in Cayman.

The Ministry of Education’s 2018-19 Education Data Report’ found that among Year 6 students, ages 10-11, girls outperformed their male peers in all subjects, including reading, writing and English.

While 81% of girls reached or surpassed the expected standard in reading, only 57% of boys did. In writing, those numbers were 64% for girls and just 36% for boys; and in English, 73% for girls compared to 43% for boys.

The ability to uplift these young people now will have substantial effects on their adult lives.

“In essence, we are creating a blueprint for later learning,” Austin said. “If 90% of brain capacity is formed by 5, if pruning of the neurological pathways begins at just 12 months old, we must start at the beginning.”

Without reading, the world and its options shrink. An individual who cannot read cannot access tools like online search engines, read the newspaper or research issues that affect their health and other aspects of life

“Your perspective, your world would narrow. … Illiteracy would follow you into old age and be passed onto your children in a vicious cycle, where to rise up risks stigma and shame,” Austin said.

“Literacy is empowerment. It’s got more to do with equality and social justice than decoding words on a page. Literacy is a basic human right. It cannot be the domain of the wealthy.”

To reach Cayman’s youngest residents, ages 0 to 5, the ‘Thrive by Five’ programme has partnered with the Early Childhood Association to bring curated libraries, family workshops and professional learning opportunities to select preschools. Books have also been given to families with young children so that they can build their own home libraries and integrate reading into their routines.

To tackle the digital divide, exposed during Cayman’s lockdown period, LIFE has donated 1,600 laptops to public school students. These devices will help children stay connected to school lessons and participate in home learning.

LIFE depends on donors and a volunteer network to make its programmes possible. To learn more about LIFE, visit www.life.org.ky.

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