International Literacy Day – Reflecting on the importance of literacy

by ShelterBox Canada September 8, 2020

September 8th is International Literacy Day, a day designated by the United Nations to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. September’s theme for Rotary Clubs around the world is uncoincidentally, also, basic education and literacy. As membership grows in our ShelterBox Book Clubs in the UK, North America, and Australia, we thought we would take this opportunity to reflect on how literacy impacts the work we do around the world.

Literacy is a skill that is often taken for granted in our daily lives but is constantly surrounding us. ShelterBox doesn’t work in the literacy sphere, but over the years we have noticed the impact of literacy on the work we do, and how the work we do unintentionally impacts literacy.

Shelter, and the ability to rebuild, starts the long process of families getting their lives back to normal. For most families with children, this also means getting their children back to education, including literacy. Many families we work with, like 14-year-old Asala from the Syrian Region, mention that their next step after having a place to call home and stay warm is to get back to school.

When settled in their new ShelterBox tent, Asala shared with us, “Although it’s a small tent, it’s like a palace for me. What really concerns me now is getting back to school, so I can continue my study. If I didn’t study I won’t be able to work and secure my and my family’s needs in the future, like what my mum did.”


Asala and their family in their ShelterBox tent.


It’s clear that literacy is incredibly important in the lives of those around the world.

Literacy also impacts the work we do and how we accomplish it. Many people in the West often have a baseline assumption that everyone can read and write and don’t often consider the literacy-related challenges in the work we do in the field.

Overcoming challenges is at the heart of all we do at ShelterBox, and sometimes this means that we also need to overcome literacy challenges in our work. Even though literacy organizations around the world make progress in reducing illiteracy rates, there are still many people who remain unable to read and write. A recent challenge we encountered involved training materials for new aid items that we provided while adapting to COVID-19. When we began to work with our partners to include items like soap and washbasins to our distributions, we also wanted to include information that could be used to expand families’ knowledge of the importance of handwashing when combatting the virus. Some heads of families in the refugee camps where we work are illiterate, so we quickly realized that providing written materials wouldn’t have been the best solution. With the help of our partners, we adapted and began providing materials with visual diagrams as well.


Some examples of recent training sessions and information banners showing visual aids from Cameroon, Ethiopia, and the Philippines.


We have not been on the ground implementing literacy projects ourselves, but we have been lucky enough to work with people who are incredibly passionate about literacy. One of our supporters, Luke Simon, was inspired by his work with ShelterBox as well as his previous charitable work through the creation of the Piers Simon Appeal, to create ‘School in a Bag’. In March 2009, School in a Bag decided to join us on a response to Swaziland, Africa. They packed 32,000 bags with stationery and stainless-steel utensils for children in 350 schools at the ShelterBox warehouse in Helston, Cornwall. The bags were shipped to Swaziland and distributed by a partnering organization NERCHA. A School Bag is a toolkit containing everything a young person needs to maximize learning and make school more accessible for those who cannot afford materials. This access to materials improves literacy results and keeps children attending school.

ShelterBox continues to focus our expertise in disaster relief, with a mission of no family left without shelter after disaster. When families are given tools for their own self-recovery, they can decide for themselves how to move forward.

You can celebrate International Literacy Day by joining ShelterBox Book Clun North America today. Join us as these books take us on a journey around the world – discover different countries, their people, and traditions, and learn more about the places your support has allowed ShelterBox to respond.

Sign up for the ShelterBox North America Book Club today!

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