Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Case for a Safe Space: Libraries Empower Women In Asia

December 08, 2014

Imagine if every time you wanted to leave home, you had to ask your husband for permission.


Although freedom of mobility is a basic human right, millions of women in South Asia have to ask their husband’s permission to leave home for anything but agriculture or childcare. When they leave, they must be accompanied by a male family member. 


A lack of freedom makes it hard for women to make independent decisions about their lives.


Without autonomy, women can’t choose whether they go to school; what kind of food or medicine they buy for their kids; what family planning methods they use; or even whether they can visit their friends and neighbors.


As the Human Rights Education Association puts it:


While free movement may seem on the surface to be a fairly minor and obvious human right, it actually is one of the most basic rights that in many nations around the world, when violated, causes numerous problems and cases of suffering.

This is what life was like for Chuna Devi, who once said that, "being born as a girl is worthless." As a girl in rural Nepal, her education was never a priority. She grew up herding animals, and was married off at sixteen.

So what can we do to help women gain freedom of mobility and increased decision-making power?

1. Create a safe space

Most women in South Asia have no safe, public spaces to gather and learn.  

We at READ Global, a grantee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, establish libraries (called READ Centers) in rural communities of South Asia.

“The READ Center is a safe space for women, and we don’t really need approval from our family to visit.” – Women’s focus group participant

Our metrics show that providing a dedicated safe space for women in a library improves mobility, increases self-esteem, and boosts decision-making power.

Three-quarters of women surveyed in India and Nepal reported being able to travel outside of their home more often without having to ask permission because of the Center.

Two-thirds of women reported that they can now make decisions on healthcare, their children's education, spending, and family planning.

2. Educate 

READ Centers provide access to essential information and trainings in health, agriculture, and more.

A large majority of Center visitors surveyed - 99%  in Bhutan, 75% in India, and 67% in Nepal - said they would not otherwise have access to the information they obtained there. These libraries are often the only educational resource available in a community.

Centers give women the opportunity to learn about and take trainings on issues that are most important to their everyday decision-making: family planning, maternal and newborn health, and agriculture.

3. Enable women to earn and save 

Studies show that women's autonomy is much greater if they earn an income.

READ Centers provide livelihood skills training to enable women to earn a living through beekeeping, sewing, vegetable farming, and more. 

86% of skills training participants in India reported that since the training, they have increased their income. 73% can pay for more food, 68% can access healthcare, and 63% can now send their children to school.

Women’s access to financial services is important in South Asia, because men typically control the family’s cash flow.  

Most READ Centers in Nepal offer savings cooperatives so that women can make decisions about their finances. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of women surveyed at these Centers increased their savings or income, and one-fifth started micro-enterprises.

In a recent Science Magazine article, Melinda Gates stressed the need for innovative models that empower women on multiple fronts, including "education, control over resources, decision-making authority, and physical safety."

Libraries are a solution: they offer an "integrated delivery" model that provides women with a safe space and access to essential information on health, livelihoods, rights, and more.

For women like Chuna, having access to a library can mean finding a worth in life: "After receiving an education, I have courage and self-confidence that I can achieve something," she said, "I want to tell other women that you're never too old to learn."

Watch a 3-minute video of Chuna’s story.


Sign a pledge to stand up for women’s right to mobility and share with your family and friends. To learn more about READ Global’s monitoring and evaluation work assessing the impact of libraries on women’s empowerment, visit You can follow READ’s work at @READGlobal.

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