New data released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that literacy rates for adults and youth are continuing to rise. But 775 million adults still cannot read and write – and many countries are unlikely to meet the Education for All goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015.
The new data show that the strongest literacy gains were for young women aged 15-24. Women still lag behind, however. In 2010, 87% of young women had basic literacy skills, compared with 92% of men. The UIS website features interactive illustrations of the new data by country, gender and in relation to GDP.
Some countries with large illiterate populations, such as China and Kenya, are on track to achieve the EFA literacy goal. But many countries are far off track. At their current rate of progress, Bangladesh and India will get no more than halfway to the 2015 target, while Angola, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will fall even further short, according to the 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report. In total, 33 countries with literacy rates below 97% are unlikely to reach the literacy goal.
The benefits of having a literate population are immense. Literacy increases people’s self-esteem and creates opportunities to escape poverty. It equips women with the knowledge and confidence to participate in decisions that affect them. Literacy programmes also promote equity when targeting populations with a history of marginalization.
Literacy can also clear the path to peace, as we discussed on this blog for the International Literacy Day in September. Any government with a commitment to basic human rights and poverty reduction, or with an interest in removing a major barrier to economic growth, should therefore make reducing illiteracy a priority.
The slow progress towards halving illiteracy is mainly due to a lack of political commitment. As we found in the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, the common notion that rapid advances in adult literacy are neither feasible nor affordable is not well grounded in evidence. On the contrary, effective policy interventions with strong leadership, clear targets and financial commitments can produce impressive results. Achieving the literacy goal would represent less than 2% of the global Education for All financing requirement.
The 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report, which will be launched on October 16, will focus on how skills – including basic skills like literacy and numeracy – can help young marginalized people get decent jobs and better lives.
Photo: A Tzotzil Maya woman learning to read and write in Zinacantan, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in a programme run by the NGO Alternativa Solidaria Chiapas and supported by UNESCO. (Victor Manuel Camacho Victoria/UNESCO)