As of this year, at least 781 million adults across the world are unable to read or write. While more than half the world’s illiterate population lives in south and west Asia, the worst literacy rates come from sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries less than half of the adult population is literate. Of the 781 million illiterate adults worldwide, almost two thirds of this number were women.
Poor literacy is not just a problem in the developing world. 16% of adults in England can be described as ‘functionally illiterate’, meaning that they possess literacy levels at or below the level expected of an eleven year-old. A study taken in 2013 shows that 16-24 year-olds in England score 22nd out of 24 studied countries at international literacy tests.
September 8th is International Literacy Day, a celebration of literacy organised by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), which has been celebrated annually for 38 years. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of the vital importance of literacy to human welfare and international development.
Undoubtedly the most significant factor contributing to low literacy is poverty. Burkina Faso has one of the lowest GDP per capita figures in the world, at only $1,400, compared to the UK’s $37,700 or the US’s $52,800. It is also the country with the lowest literacy rate in the world, at only 12.8% of the population (both youth and adult). In England, just 21% of GCSE pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieved five A*-C grades, compared to 49% of other pupils.
Basic literacy skills aren’t just a luxury – they’re a necessity. Data from UNESCO shows that if all mothers worldwide had primary education, child mortality could be reduced by 15%; if secondary education, then it could be cut in half. Adults in England with poor literacy are least likely to be in full-time work at the age of thirty, and 63% of men and 75% of women with low literacy report never having received a promotion. Worldwide, individuals with low literacy are also less likely to participate in democratic processes like joining a workers’ union or voting in elections.
Low literacy levels are a huge contributor to the self-perpetuating nature of poverty. Children born into poor backgrounds, whether in Burkina Faso or the UK, are at a disadvantage when it comes to education, and therefore are less likely to be able to break out of poverty and better their economic situation. If economic inequality, global and domestic, is to be remedied and the rule of democracy to spread and endure, education and literacy for all is vital.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that everyone has the right to education. Where conflict, discrimination or inequality lead to a privation of education, it is the duty of all those with the ability to join the struggle to end conflict, discrimination and inequality.
What can we do today?
- Read to the young children in your family. Children who are read to from an early age develop a positive relationship with words and reading.
- Volunteer at your local library or school, or with a charity such as Beanstalk or Reading Matters, to help children with reading, or volunteer in adult literacy.
- Set up a regular donation to the National Literacy Trust (UK), Reading Is Fundamental (US), Pratham (India), or Amnesty International. Small, regular donations are more helpful than large, one-off payments because they lend security and allow charities to budget effectively.
- Oppose public policy that encourages economic and educational inequality, such as benefit capping or the cutting of library funding, and support policies that help the economically disadvantaged, like free childcare. Vote, demonstrate, and write to your MP or other elected representative.