Barely anyone — one to two percent of the population — could read in ancient Rome and nobody thought more people should. Now we recognize that literacy is a human right; that being able to read and write is personally empowering and, in a world that relies more and more on technology, simply necessary.
Nonetheless, millions of children, the majority of whom are girls, still never learn to read and write today (pdf). This Sunday, September 8, is International Literacy Day, an event that Unesco has been observing for more than 40 years to highlight how essential literacy is to learning and also “for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy.”
774 million people aged 15 and older are illiterate, an infographic (pdf) from Unesco details. 52 percent (pdf) live in south and west Asia and 22 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. The latter region is where most of the countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world are located, according to data from the C.I.A.:
1. Burkina Faso: 21.8 percent of the adults in this West African country are literate.
2. South Sudan: This country in east Africa, which became an independent state in 2011, has a literary rate of 27 percent.
3 Afghanistan: 28.1 percent of this country’s population are literate with a far higher percentage of men (43.1 percent) than women (12.6 percent) able to read.
4. Niger: The ratio of men to women in this landlocked western African country is also lopsided: the literacy rate is 42.9 percent for men, 15.1 percent for women and 28.7 percent overall.
5. Mali: Niger’s neighbor on the west, the literacy rate in Mali is 33.4 percent. 43.1 percent of the adult male population can read and 24.6 percent of the country’s women.
6. Chad: This west African country is Niger’s neighbor on its eastern border; 34.5 percent of its population is literate.
7. Somalia: Long beset by civil war and famine, 37.8 of Somalia’s population is literate. 49.7 percent of the adult male population is literate but only 25.8 percent of adult females.
8. Ethiopia: Somalia’s neighbor to the north, the literacy rate in Ethiopia is 39 percent.
9. Guinea: 41 percent of this west African country’s population is literate. More than half (52 percent) of adult males are literature and only 30 percent of women.
10. Benin: 42.4 percent of Benin in West Africa are literate.
Around the world, two-thirds of adults who are illiterate are female, meaning that there are 493 women unable to read and write.
54 of the 76 million illiterate young women come from nine countries, most in south and west Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and not necessarily those with high rates of adult illiteracy: India (where almost 30 million young women are illiterate), Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Republic of Tanzania, Egypt and Burkina Faso.
Why Literacy Is a Human Right
Those who cannot read and write are “destined to be on the social and economic margins of our world,” Unesco reminds us. Being able to read and write has profound benefits not only on a person’s educational opportunities but also for their health, economic prospects and their children.
My late grandmother, who emigrated from southern China to Oakland in the early 20th century, never learned to read or write anything beyond her first and last name. She relied completely on her children or grandchildren to read the instructions on a bottle of medicine, to open her mail and pay her bills. Once when she was in her 90s and still living alone in Oakland Chinatown, a strange man knocked on her door, showed her some official-looking documents and insisted that he had to enter her house. She shut the door in his face and immediately called my dad.
Had my grandmother been able to read the papers the man had in his hand, she could have known what he was up to. As a girl in rural China at the start of the previous century, no one gave a thought to teaching her to read or write. She worked for most of her life (she was still sewing piecework for clothing manufacturers into her 90s). Like many older adults, she simply never had time to devote her energies to learn to read and write.
In 2010, the literacy rate was higher for young people (89.6 percent) than for adults (84.1 percent), according to a report from Unesco (pdf). It’s essential that as many children as possible go to school, learn to read and write and acquire the numeracy skills necessary to thrive in our technology-drive world. This year’s International Literacy Day is specifically dedicated to “literacies for the 21st century,” in recognition that we not only need to need to provide “basic literacy skills for all” but also “equip everyone with more advanced literacy skills as part of lifelong learning.”
Last year’s assassination attempt of Pakistani teenage educational activist Malala Yousafzai highlighted the immense challenges faced by young women in parts of Asia to acquire an education. It is all the more imperative to get behind efforts like Unesco’s Education For All movement, which strives to provide a quality basic education for all children, youth and adults and, therefore, to give as many as possible the best possible foundation for their future.
Photo of students in Ethiopia via Wikimedia Commons