INTO UAB reaches beyond campus to support girls’ education in Sri Lanka


By Haley Herfurth 04 January, 2018

This year, Room to Read Sri Lanka will receive $9,800 to help fund its current projects because Achala Gunasekara-Rockwell, Ph.D., INTO UAB’s Indian culture and language adviser, nominated the organization for an INTO Giving grant, which support education projects in developing countries.

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Achala Gunasekara-Rockwell, Ph.D.INTO Giving prioritizes projects that help children in first through 12th grade, and Gunasekara-Rockwell — who was born and raised in Sri Lanka — thought Room to Read’s literacy and girls’ education programs would be a natural fit for one of its grants. She was correct; it was one of six selected this year.

According to the Room to Read website, $300 can keep a girl in a developing country in school for a year, so the $9,800 grant can help more than 32 children during the next year.

A near-and-dear issue

The educational issues that children — young women especially — face in rural Sri Lanka are close to Gunasekara-Rockwell’s heart. She said less-fortunate families will send their boys to school, but girls generally are expected to remain home and take care of the younger siblings.

“As in many countries, opportunities often are tied to the availability of resources, and families have to make difficult decisions about how to allocate their scarce share of those,” she said. “There’s a huge gap between the haves and have-nots. I’m a fortunate one. My parents gave me a good life, and I even went to school by car.”

But she remembers others not being so fortunate; her family had what she said they called “maids,” who were younger children from local families whose parents didn’t have money to raise them.

“They were just helping around the house,” Gunasekara-Rockwell said. “My mom was kind of doing a favor, because some parents would say, ‘Could you please take my kid. They’ll help you, just feed them.’ I felt like they were missing educational opportunities. Just basic learning was missing.”

She remembers not receiving sexual education until age 12, but many young women never receive it at all; that is not unsurprising in a culture in which gender relations has traditionally been a taboo subject in public discourse, Gunasekara-Rockwell said. Many sexual assaults go unreported because of the stigma attached. Some of the victims may commit suicide or be forced to marry someone who provides a large enough dowry.

“It’s a different world there,” she said.

Education for young girls in Sri Lanka doesn’t just bring the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic to an under-served population; it also can be an agent of cultural and social change, Gunasekara-Rockwell said.

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According to the Room to Read website, $300 can keep a girl in a developing country in school for a year, so the $9,800 grant can help more than 32 children during the next year.With projects like Room to Read, girls are “not just staying home,” she said. “At least they’ll go to school and get educated, and teachers will tell them, ‘Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you have to stay home to care for younger siblings or get married or abused.’ Room to Read is looking after girls.”

Continuing the change

Gunasekara-Rockwell plans to continue to support organizations like Room to Read in the future by continuing to apply for the annual INTO Giving grants. Room to Read itself has benefited more than 11.6 million children in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia and Sri Lanka, and countless other nonprofits are trying to improve literacy in developing countries.

“Education is the gateway for meaningful social change, and Room to Read has proven itself a reliable ally in that struggle,” Gunasekara-Rockwell said. “I am happy that INTO will be partnering with the organization to further that mission.”

INTO UAB is an initiative begun in 2016 to increase the global diversity of UAB’s student body and expand global opportunities for its domestic students and faculty to pursue international teaching, research and service. David Hofmann, executive director of INTO UAB, said the Room to Read initiative mirrors the kind of community INTO UAB is building on campus.

“As a new INTO partner, we are thrilled that our first proposal was accepted,” Hoffman said. “Not only is it important that our students understand the benefit of creating a global community on UAB’s campus, but also how their efforts impact people from around the world.”