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Alumna working for children’s literacy and safety in Maldives

Posted: 21 May 2024

Maldives, Alumni, Impact,

After completing her Bachelor of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the Maldives College of Higher Education, Asima Abdul Gadir began considering pursuing further studies in another country to enrich her educational experience. Her friend Aishath Inas received an Australia Awards Scholarship to undertake a Master of Educational Leadership at Macquarie University, and this prompted Asima to research Australia Awards.

Aishath’s enthusiastic testimony about the Australia Awards program and studying in Australia motivated Asima to apply, and in 2014 she received an Australia Awards Scholarship to study a Master of Education at the University of Western Australia.

Arriving in Australia for her studies in 2015 was Asima’s first experience of the country. Coming from a small island nation, Asima was impressed by the vastness of Australia. The cultural diversity and her experiences with the international community taught her that anything was possible in Australia.

Asima in Maldives.

“As an outsider, I was able to see and experience a completely different society in terms of culture and way of life. I began to develop more respect for people of other cultures and backgrounds,” Asima says. “The multicultural student population of Australia enabled me to interact with people of various beliefs and ways of life. I was able to make new friends from all over the world who were also recipients of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Even though it has been quite some time since I completed my studies, I am still in contact with many of them.”

After completing her degree and returning home, Asima was unable to commit to a full-time job due to personal reasons. This led her to begin working as a freelance consultant for the Quality Assurance Department of the Maldivian Ministry of Education. The Quality Assurance Department is mandated with the monitoring and evaluation of all schools in Maldives. From 2016 to 2019, Asima participated in observation trips to more than 50 schools on various islands of the country. These trips typically involve a team of 6–8 members travelling to each school and spending about three days conducting a complete assessment of the quality of education it provides.  The assessments entail observing lessons; analysing work and lesson plans; conducting surveys of teachers, parents and students; and assessing the administration and operations of the school. Once the assessment is complete, the team presents their findings in the form of a report to the school and the Ministry of Education.

However, life as Asima knew it came to a halt during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. Everyone was either working or studying from home. Because schools were closed, no extracurricular activities were being conducted in schools and, as a result, students had a lot of spare time. From her experience with the Quality Assurance Department, Asima had already observed that most Maldivian students were not avid readers. In response, she and her colleague Aminath Nihan co-founded an educational initiative called The Reading Room to offer online storytelling sessions for young students. They created a Facebook page and posted links to their storytelling schedule; this resulted in many students joining the sessions, and they quickly garnered a lot of support from all over the country. This encouraged Asima and Nihan to add more facets to their project. They began ‘pyjama time’ for the youngest participants to join The Reading Room in their pyjamas for a bedtime story; a ‘book chat’ segment for students to read a story during the week and discuss it on Saturdays; a ‘chapter club’ for older students, in which they read longer books with many chapters, and discussed plot and characters in depth; and themed variations such as ‘fairy-tale time’, ‘monster time’ and ‘incredible stories’.

Asima conducts a reading session through her educational initiative, The Reading Room.

Once the lockdown was lifted and schools reopened, the Maldivian Ministry of Education identified that a huge learning loss had occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among children who were beginning school and on the verge of attaining literacy. To combat this learning loss, the Ministry created various professional development programs for teachers, including training in teaching literacy skills to children, focusing on Foundation and Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum. To support this initiative, The Reading Room also created professional development programs to meet the needs identified by the Ministry.

Asima and her team were very successful in conducting these trainings at schools in Malé and soon began to receive requests from schools in outer atolls to conduct trainings there. This led to Asima and her team registering The Reading Room as a non-government organisation and sending out proposals to various businesses and funding bodies to receive funding. It was at this juncture in 2021 that the Australia Awards – Maldives Partnerships for Recovery grant was launched. Asima applied for a grant of up to AUD5,000 and her application was successful. Using the funding, she created model delivery lesson packs and a teachers’ guide for early literacy teaching. The project also involved conducting training workshops for teachers of Foundation, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, from all parts of Maldives, to validate these aids and use them in their classrooms. These resources were well-received by the Ministry of Education and are now available to all teachers across Maldives.

Asima also received a second Australia Awards Partnerships for Recovery grant in 2024. The first activity of the grant-funded project is to develop, in association with ARC (Advocating the Rights of Children), a website for the HOPE (Heal, Outreach, Prevent and Empower) campaign against child abuse. The second activity includes training and advocacy through the educational storybook ‘Boss of my Body’, developed by ARC in partnership with UNICEF Maldives, to create awareness among children about safe and unsafe touch.

Asima (far right) with other Australia Awards alumni in Maldives.

Despite her busy work schedule, Asima continues to attend alumni engagement activities whenever possible. Most recently, she facilitated a session on ‘Becoming change agents as alumni’ at a Returning Home for Development workshop. This workshop was attended by Australia Awards alumni who had recently returned from Australia. In addition to leading the interactive session, Asima also served as a mentor to the alumni.

Speaking about her future aspirations, Asima says that she wants to keep expanding the work that she is already doing: providing professional development to teachers, spreading educational awareness among parents, and getting children interested in and excited about reading.

One of the projects that Asima is currently working on is ‘Read Right with The Reading Room’, funded by the Atmosphere Foundation. The project provides professional development for teachers in early literacy reading skills, workshops to raise parents’ awareness of how to encourage and help their children to attain literacy skills in the home, and storytelling and reading sessions for students to help them improve their reading skills and motivate them to become better readers. This initiative has reached over 6,000 students, 2,000 parents and 1,200 teachers.

“Australia Awards is a well-received and respected program in Maldives. This background has been a catalyst for me to forge connections in various areas related to the education sector. Furthermore, it has made society accept my work more readily too. Therefore, it has been very easy to conduct educational programs in various schools across the country,” Asima says. “My time in Australia was the stepping stone not only towards advancement in my career, but also towards immense personal development. I am grateful for the Scholarship as well as the opportunities I received post-Scholarship, which have been pivotal in making a difference in my line of work.”