Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Power of Literacy

Bloggers Unite is an initiative by the founders of BlogCatalog to generate interest in important issues by getting bloggers to write about a particular subject on one day of the month. I see this as an effort to learn something new and to think about an issue long enough to write something meaningful and worthwhile about it and therefore, it is a valuable addition to my project to learn more about issues in an effort to understand them.

This is especially relevant in this edition of Bloggers Unite as I believe we tend to take literacy and its benefits for granted and struggle to comprehend the effects that a lack of literacy can have. On to International Literacy Day then.

UNESCO and International Literacy Day

In 1965, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) proclaimed September 8 to be International Literacy Day and it was first observed in 1966.

The aim of International Literacy Day is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.

Although the programme has been running for 43 years, literacy is still a huge problem worldwide. This prompted the United Nations to declare the United Nations Literacy Decade which is lead by UNESCO and runs from 2003 to 2012. The overall target for the decade is to increase literacy rates by 50% by 2015 and this falls in line with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals regarding the reduction of poverty.

On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO takes the opportunity to remind the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. On the UNESCO website, the following chilling observation is made:

“Despite many and varied efforts, literacy remains an elusive target: some 776 million adults lack minimum literacy skills which means that one in five adults is still not literate; 75 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out” - UNESCO

Each year there is a different theme to International Literacy Day and this year the theme is The Power of Literacy.

The Power of Literacy

Literacy is power. Literacy gives individuals the power to make basic choices in their lives and to lead their lives as they want to. That possibly sounds simplistic but a little choice goes a long way.

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Women and Literacy

Of the 776 million adults that lacks literacy skills, UNESCO notes that two thirds of those are women. That means that around the world, 517 million women are unable to gain skilled employment (if they are permitted to work at all) and they remain powerless to break the cycle of dependence and subservience as they lack the basic skills to empower themselves and make better choices for themselves. Note, I’m not implying that illiterate women make bad choices, I’m simply saying that there are less choices available to them.

This is not just a third world problem either. It applies across societies from Saudi Arabia where women are told what to wear and are prohibited from working or gaining an education to so-called first world countries where a lack of literacy can keep women dependent on a welfare state or working in the most menial of jobs.

The Asia-Pacific Region and Literacy

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) website states that the Asia-Pacific region is home to three-quarters of the world’s illiterate population. They say that illiteracy is both a cause and consequence of poverty, deprivation and under-development. Literacy is not just about reading and writing; literacy gives individuals the tools with which to understand their environment and equips them with problem-solving skills. Literacy leads to improved cognitive functioning and enables people to interact more effectively within their communities.

Think about all the things that we take for granted: voting, banking, reading road signs, following written instructions or using a computer. These are basic necessities that can be made available to individuals through basic literacy but they are part of the world that is closed off to the illiterate.

“[The education of women] acts as a catalyst in virtually every dimension of development and poverty alleviation, with outcomes such as reduced fertility, reduced infant mortality, improved child survival, better family health, increased educational attainment, higher productivity, and general improvement in the nation's economic situation.” - UNESCAP

Literacy and Socio-Economic Indicators

In 1980 the Nicaraguan government embarked on the Sandinista Literacy Campaign as prior to the campaign, between 75% and 90% of the rural population was illiterate. The Literacy Campaign was a resounding success and was awarded the prestigious UNESCO Literacy Award.

The campaign presented a unique opportunity to study the effect of literacy on various socio-economic indicators. “The Impact of Women's Literacy on Child Health and its Interaction with Access to Health Services” by Sandiford, Cassel, Montenegro and Sanchez was published in the Population Studies in March 2005. This excellent study of 4434 women studied the effects of literacy on nutrition and child survival. There were three test groups: women educated through formal primary education, women who became literate through adult education and illiterate and semi-literate women.

Child and infant mortality and malnutrition were found to be significantly lower amongst the adult-educated population than amongst those that remained illiterate.

The significance of this study is that literacy is powerful and improves the lives of those people who gain it. While the study did favour those that had received education earlier in life, the impact of adult-education on formerly illiterate women was significant.

Literacy and Breaking the Chains of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

As mentioned earlier, illiteracy is both a cause and a consequence of poverty, deprivation and under-development. Right across the globe, this leads to a phenomenon known as the self-fulfilling prophecy as the children of illiterate parents come to believe that they will not be able to escape the fate that has fallen upon their parents.

Literacy is power and can assist in breaking the chains of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Literacy empowers individuals and gives them access to a greater range of choices. Those educated as adults are better able to support their children and ensure their survival. Basic literacy paves the way for further education and the learning of new skills for both adults and children. Literacy builds communities and ensure that individuals are more productive and that they in turn can continue to support both their families and the community at large.

Perhaps the biggest power of literacy is that it builds a person’s self-confidence and spirit. This power alone can break the cycle and enable people to achieve greater things than their parents were able to achieve. The light that you see in a learner’s eyes, be they an adult or a child, is a light that continues to burn as they master the environment around them.

Visit the UNESCO International Literacy Prize Winners 2009 and see how you can get involved in improving literacy worldwide. Better yet, look up an adult education programme in your neighbourhood and get involved. With just a little time and patience, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to teach an adult to read! With practice and application, it is a skill they will never forget.



  1. Several years ago I was a volunteer tutor for our literacy council. I had two or three students, mostly young kids. It was very rewarding because often you can act as a mentor and as an encouraging figure. Kids who have trouble reading often think of themselves as stupid. When a caring adult sits down week after week and gets to know them and gives them words of encouragement it means a lot. Most places have a Literacy Council. If this interests you, I would definitely follow through.

  2. Literacy is of such importance. Just as people need food, they need to be able to feed their minds. Literacy is the key to self-empowerment. This is an inspiring post. I do hope more will become mentors, perhaps even with their own children.

  3. @ Windroot: Hi! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!! I can imagine that it is hugely rewarding!

    @ askcherlock: I love what you said last - "perhaps even with their own children". I often think there should be parenting classes so parents can be taught that they need to nurture their children!!


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