Almost four years ago, the then US First Lady Michelle Obama stood up at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit in Washington and spoke about a teenage girl she had met earlier that year at a high school in Cambodia.
‘This young lady wakes up at 4:00 every morning to cook for her family, to water their crops, to tend to their cows. Then she gets on a rickety bicycle and she pedals for an hour to get to school where she studies as hard as she can to fulfil her dream of becoming a math teacher,’ Mrs Obama said.
‘She stood up in front of me, the First Lady of Cambodia, and dozens of international reporters and camera crews, and let me tell you, she spoke so eloquently about her life. She was poised and confident. And this is what she told us. She said—and these are her words—she said, “I have been through a lot of hardships. I know that I need to overcome them.” She said, “I’ve never thought that they are the barrier to stop me. I’ve never thought of giving up,” she said. “I never lose hope in myself.’’’
The teenager was Sohang Vean, and she was part of international program Room to Read that strives to increase literacy in the developed world, and especially improve girls’ educational outcomes. Australian software company Atlassian is now in its tenth year of partnering with Room to Read in Cambodia and has been awarded the Gender-Wise Philanthropy Award after becoming the largest investor in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in Cambodia.
And Sohang Vean is now studying for a finance degree at the University of Cambodia. She joined Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in 2009, when she was in Year 7. ‘I’ve never thought of dropping out of school,’ Sohang said. ‘I believe that only education can help our family. If we don’t study, we will face the same issues as those who came before us. If I study hard, I will be able to help myself, my family and my country.’
Sohang is one of many stories that show not only the benefit of the Atlassian-Room to Read partnership, but also the challenges. The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia destroyed not only the infrastructure for education – schools and libraries - but also the nation’s educated class. Nowadays, almost half of the number of girls in rural Cambodia work, rather than attend school. Boys outnumber girls in school at a ratio of 3:1.
When Atlassian employees were given a staff survey about which cause they wanted to support, it was education and especially educating girls in Cambodia.
Room to Read was set up by former Microsoft executive John Wood in 2000 with the intention of tackling illiteracy in the developing world. Education and literacy programs are at the heart of trying to make a dent in the problem of 750 million illiterate adults in the world, two thirds of them women.
Initial expectations were that Atlassian would raise a helpful $25,000 to the cause. Instead, it raised $1 million in its first year. The practical application of that support on the ground has seen a literacy pilot program taken up by the Cambodian education department and put onto the national curriculum, Khmer language text books published, and schools and libraries rebuilt, to help the implementation of the Girls’ Education program. There are 62 million girls across the world who are still not in school. Literacy and an education remain the best predictors of a girl breaking out of the cycle of poverty in the developed world.
‘It is not just about attending school,’ Atlassian Foundation International director Melissa Beaumont Lee says. ‘It’s about the quality of learning, the quality of education, and that’s where the literacy program comes in. We are talking about life outcomes too – so that girls can make good life choices and we can start to end the practice of child marriages and trafficking of girls to Thailand.’
Since the partnership started, Atlassian has donated more than $US10 million to Room to Read. Since 2014, the support goes beyond the Atlassian Foundation to include employees’ workplace giving program: almost half of the company’s 4000 employees give a dollar a day from their pay packet to support the Girls’ Education Program and the Foundation matches that total. Groups of employees will also spend time on the ground, seeing how the programs work and meeting some of the girls who take part. It is not the only philanthropic relationship Atlassian has, but it is the most enduring. Overall, Atlassian estimates it has funded almost 23,000 years of girls’ education and helped 250,000 children through the Room to Read literacy program. In 2017, Atlassian was the largest corporate investor in the Cambodian Girls’ Education program.
The Girls’ Education program represents a significant long-term investment. Room to Read founder John Wood estimates that it takes only $250 a year to give a girl all she needs, starting with a uniform and including life skill coaching. On the ground, Room to Read works closely with families, local communities and government to develop literacy skills in early primary school.
This award is presented in partnership with the Australian Women Donors Network (AWDN) and is sponsored by Netwealth.