With 9 centers established, 47,456 villagers having access to READ Centers and 7 sustaining enterprises launched, READ Bhutan is transforming rural communities by creating access to information and resources and establishing a culture of reading and knowledge sharing through community libraries. During my short visit to Bhutan in February 2018, I got a chance to meet the Country Director of READ, Bhutan – Ms. Karma Lhazom and READ Volunteer, the knowledgeable Lama Zhenphen. Through this enriching experience, I got to know how community libraries make real contribution by creating a stimulating environment for the people.
In this chronicle, I bring you the remarkable journey of READ Bhutan and its continued contribution towards change and transformation. Read On!
Bhutan, a small country that spreads across 38,394 square km with roughly 735,553 inhabitants (along with rising number of additional immigrants), has one of the lowest adult literacy rates in South Asia, 33.4 % of adults in Bhutan are illiterate, 62.2% live in rural areas (Population and Housing Census of Bhutan, 2017), extremely high altitudes and irregular, often precipitous terrain keeping rural population off information and better livelihood. The concerns are not limited to literacy, there are issues encircling gender equality, women’s health, participation of women in economic development, better work opportunities for men, addressal of the knowledge gap and global poverty among the pressing ones.
Rural Education and Development (READ) Bhutan was established in 2008. In 2010, READ Bhutan opened its first rural library and second public-lending library in the country in the village of Ura – URA Community Library and Resource Center – with an aim to develop rural communities through access to knowledge and resources.
With gradual progress over the years, READ expanded its no. of centers in Bhutan, existing programs there and strengthened its institutional partnerships with various other organizations too, however the key focus areas remained well-defined –
The culture of reading
Books are indisputably a powerful medium for social change. The wider and diverse we read, the more efficient we become in processing any information, even better if it happens in small groups, reading develops a habit of knowledge sharing. In Bhutan, the culture of reading among the youth is poor. READ Centers there help encourage children to develop a habit of reading by offering interesting reading programs and engaging activities to kick-start their interest. Additionally, they promote the creation of reading groups that encourage women and girls to practice and teach each other to read.
Credit: READ Bhutan
According to a source, women represent 53.07% population in Bhutan, while some significant steps have been taken to reduce gender-gap, they continue to struggle in other important areas like career-advancement prospects or participation in public spheres, or better healthcare. READ Centers offer a space for women and adolescent girls to congregate, educate, and advocate, with materials and training for women on topics such as health, livelihoods, and women’s rights. They also provide training for women to acquire locally relevant livelihood skills, so they can support their families, and tools to help them participate in democratic processes both at the national and local level. Menstrual Hygiene has been a critical part of READ Bhutan’s outreach activity for their Women’s empowerment program and has been distributing re-usable menstrual kits to rural girls donated by Days for Girls Australia. In 2014, READ Bhutan published a health manual ‘Understanding Your Body: A Practical Guide to Women’s Health.’ to be used as a training material for their women’s health programs conducted at the READ Centers The Cervical and breast cancer prevention program is regularly implemented by READ Bhutan in partnership with Bhutan Cancer Society. READ Bhutan also continues to conduct livelihood and income generating training specifically aimed at women while leadership programs strengthen women’s confidence and public participation.
Youth & Children’s Programs and Information Communications Technology (ICT)
Various programs like storytelling, art camps, learning through games, poetry, and literacy competitions are offered by READ Centers with an idea to encourage children to participate, collaborate and learn together. Many centers also have formal early childhood development (ECD) programs for pre-school age children, which allow mothers to work while providing their children with a foundation for formal schooling. As part of Engaging Youth with ICT, READ centers offers ICT training courses ranging from basic computer lessons to advanced courses for professional purposes. Young children performing a skit on Environmental Protection, or interviewing their ‘Local Hero’, or learning sound recording or photography are some of the excellent activities conducted by READ Centers regularly as part of Engaging Youth with ICT. (Engaging Youth with ICT also involves digital storytelling and media literacy)
Livelihood Skills Training
With an objective to create sustainable livelihood opportunities for Bhutanese people, improve their quality of life and enhance community participation, READ Bhutan, along with partner organizations, provides workshops and training on agriculture, business skills, small-medium enterprises and other employment-related skills. In 2014, READ Bhutan successfully launched a bee-keeping sustaining enterprise to generate revenue for the Ura READ Center, community women were given textile related training like sewing, embroidery, souvenir making, and more. In 2018, READ Bhutan is providing women with skills to turn waste materials into useful products that can be marketed outside and earn additional income.
Road to Social Change with READ Bhutan
One of the prime reasons why public libraries are now seen as a critical link to community engagement is because they have moved way beyond their traditional role of lending books and progressed to becoming effective local navigators for people in the area of healthcare, welfare, education, employment, learning and development and a lot more. In fact, many libraries now act as front-line institutions in addressing the needs of people with traumatic background or suffering substance abuse.
In the coming years, READ Bhutan is focused on building capacity in community radio programming to connect residents with up-to-date information, news, music and stories, financial literacy, developing expertise in local trades and crafts and organizing women’s health camps in partnership with local experts. While being mindful of the changes in the society, READ Bhutan also brings together young children and elderly community members to record and preserve age-old oral tradition by compiling folktales to pass onto the future generations.
Credit: READ Bhutan
Snippets of my visit to Bhutan –
In conversation with Lama Zhenphen, who volunteers at the Changjiji READ Center, teaching mindfulness and reading talk about how the space at the READ Center has been so useful in keeping the children there productively channelized.
Lama is a recipient of National Order of Merit (Gold) from His Majesty the King of Bhutan, in recognition for his contributions in mentoring Bhutanese youth and helping substance abusers make positive changes in their lives.