As we mark International Literacy Day, it is an opportune time to highlight the importance of literacy and the challenges ahead in promoting global literacy. The statics are shocking and reinforce the urgency behind today's significance. According to the World Literacy Foundation, an estimated 67 million children still do not have access to primary school education.
Gender inequality is embedded heavily in determining access. Girls' are more likely to be illiterate than boys, further entrenching poverty. However, girl's illiteracy is not inevitable. There are 480 days until the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. It is imperative that the political will and momentum is kept apace to ensure all children, especially girls', are given the chance to fulfil their potential and secure their future.
Every year on Sept. 8, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reiterates its call to governments and international organizations on the importance of ensuring all people have the opportunity to read and write.
The theme of International Literacy Day 20114 is "Literacy and Sustainable Development' to highlight how literacy promotes sustainable development by allowing greater decision-making power in economic development, social development and environmental protection. The main global celebration will take place in Dhaka, where the Government of Bangladesh and UNESCO have organized the International Conference Girls' and Women's Literacy Education: Foundation for Sustainable Development.
Education is a basic human right, and one that remains unfilled for many children around the world. Accessing and resourcing schools is most challenging in the developing world, particularly in Africa and South Asia where a large majority of the worlds illiterate live. The problem is even more extensive when looking at the gender inequality reflected in literacy rates: almost two-thirds of the global illiterate are adult women.
Below highlights the benefits to achieving literacy and challenges that remain for girls' across the globe:
1. Eradicating Poverty.
Women make up a majority of the world's poor: 70 percent of the 1 billion poorest people are women. By investing in women's literacy skills society as a whole benefits, given that women typically reinvest 90 percent of their income back into their families. In doing so, they deliver better nutrition and health outcomes for their families, drastically reducing the risk of child malnutrition and food insecurity. Literate women are more likely to be healthier, enabling them to be more empowered towards decision-making to lift their families out of poverty. As such, promoting literacy is directly entwined with meeting wider development goals.
2. Illiteracy and Child Marriage
Illiterate families are more likely to marry their daughters off to offset financial burdens, with many subsequently dropping out of school. Yet, literacy and education is the most vital practical tool to a brighter more secure future. Educated parents are more able to understand the benefits of educating their children. In particular, an educated mother is more likely to ensure her children receive and complete their schooling. Knowing the benefits she has derived from her own education, mothers have higher expectations towards their children. This is extremely important for girls' as education is prioritised above work and mitigates the risk of exposure to child marriage. According to the Education For All Global Monitoring Report (GMR 2013/14), projects that child marriage would drop by 14 percent if all girls' in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had primary education, with a massive 64 percent drop when they have access to secondary education.
3. Education and Maternal Health.
Every year, an estimated 300,000 women still die from pregnancy related complications. Most of these deaths occur in poverty stricken communities and rural areas, of which the main causes are hemorrhaging, eclampsia and prolonged or obstructed labour, all of which are preventable with effective and efficient treatment. Literacy and education are highly important in ensuring women are able to access and understand health services and information delivered by Skilled Birth Attendants; it is literally a matter of survival for women in places like Afghanistan, which has one of the highest rates of maternal deaths in the world.
4. It's Not Just About Achieving Access: Improve the Quality of Education.
Poor quality education is increasing the number of illiterate children, far greater than previously estimated: one in four adolescents are unable to read a single sentence. UNESCO's Global Monitoring Report estimates that it will take another half a century, until 2072, for the poorest young women in the Global South to learn to read. However, significant progress has been made. For instance, in Bangladesh women's literacy has more than doubled in 1990 to 2011.
5. Literacy and Equal Employment Opportunities.
The earning potential of illiterate individuals is significantly curtailed: income can be as much as 30-40 percent less then their literate counterparts. For women, the disparity is even wider: women work two-thirds of the world's working hours and yet earn only 10 percent of the world's income. On average, women earn 50 percent less then men. Gender inequality and illiteracy need to be simultaneously addressed to ensure equal employment opportunities.
6. Conflict and Displacement: Continuing Education in War.
With 2014 being marked as one of the most violent in recent history, with conflicts in Gaza, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Ukraine and Syria, an unprecedented refugee crisis has unfolded. Children have borne the brunt of these conflicts, with many being unable to continue education as a result of persistent instability. Economic survival means that many children are now working to help their families. More needs to be done to ensure children in displacement camps have access to literacy programs so they can continue this vital period of their childhood, in spite of war.
7. Terrorism and the Targeting of Schools.
Growing instability across the world has exposed a worrying trend: children in school are targeted as part of extremist ideology. The kidnapping of around 300 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Harem highlights the added danger girls' face in accessing and remaining in education during escalating violence. Many parents are keeping their daughters at home for fear that their child could be kidnapped. Moreover, Pakistan's Swat Valley, home of education activist Malaka Yousafzai, is still the strong hold of the Taliban. This has meant that nearly one-third of local girls' do not attend school as a result of its ultra-conservative society and the lack of educational facilities.
It is clear that the road ahead is fraught with many challenges, but the benefits of achieving literacy and education has a ripple affect that impacts not just girls' but society and the nation as a whole. In seeing the problems ahead caused by many of the tragic events of 2014, it is vital that governments and international organizations heed UNESCO's call for sustained progress towards promoting literacy. Given that 781 million people remain illiterate in 2014, the urgency could not be greater.
After today, past commitments must be implemented with renewed effort to ensure the provision of resources, funding and access to education for all. As the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova reminds us, committed investment is needed to ensure "Literacy is fully recognized as one of the most powerful accelerators of sustainable development...literacy not only changes lives, it saves them." For girls', education paves the way to a future determined and built by their own hands.