10.09.2012 - UNESCO Office in Kathmandu

What has Peace to do with Literacy?

©UNESCO/Krishna Malla -Girls from a literacy class in a Community Learning Centre in Nepal

If you ask a young woman from a small village in the Bajura district – let’s call her Kamala – why it would be good for her to learn to read and write, she will probably say: “Because I would finally understand what is written on the medicine that my little son has to take. And I could go alone to the bank and sign the receipt for the money that my husband sends us from Dubai.” It is most unlikely that Kamala would say: “Because I want to fully participate in Nepal’s peace process”.

But the correlation between literacy and peace is strong.  

There are at least three good reasons for helping the women in Bajura, where only nine out of a hundred can read and write, and the many other illiterate women and men in Nepal, become  literate so that they can participate in Nepal’s transition to democracy and peace.

First, people must be literate to enjoy their human right of basic education and the adventure of learning.  Illiterate people cannot benefit from the power of education to transform the lives of people. Education allows them to broaden critical thinking, make informed choices and become agents of change and actors of peace. Literacy is not merely the skill to read and write, it is a transformational process that empowers individuals.

Second, women and men need to be able to read and write to effectively engage with democratic institutions, to make choices, exercise citizenship rights and act for the common good. The consolidation of democracy requires people’s participation; only then a country can be brought closer to peace. 

Third, literacy facilitates conflict resolution, social cohesion and peace building. Paulo Freire’s concept of adult literacy relates the literacy process to the lived reality of individuals and to their own transformation. For Freire ‘the word is not something static or disconnected from men’s existential experience, but is a dimension of their thought–language about the world”.   As literacy always means learning about the world, it is about intercultural understanding, tolerance and respect. 

Countries with patterns of violence have some of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Conflict remains one of the major barriers to the attainment of the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals. Conflict-affected countries are home to over 40% of the world’s out-of-school population of primary school age.

No country can hope to establish lasting conditions for peace unless it finds ways of building mutual trust between its citizens. Inclusive education promotes mutual understanding, respect, tolerance and dialogue. Literacy opens new opportunities and skills for all. Amidst political upheaval and violence, literacy and education must be priority in peace-building agendas. 

Many people in Nepal recognize that the country’s democratic and peaceful future depends upon informed and knowledgeable people, fully aware of their rights and responsibilities.  Many believe that it is crucial to eradicate illiteracy in order to plant the seeds of peace, foster dialogue and reconciliation, and give youth and adults the skills they need to seek decent employment.

The reality is that too many of Nepal’s girls and boys, women and men are still excluded to reap the benefits of literacy. According to most recent figures, more than 43 percent of people in Nepal, who are 15 years old or older, lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, the majority being girls and women. The disparity between male and female literacy rate is extremely high, with male literacy rate at 71.6 percent and female literacy rate at only 44.5 percent.  According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011, out of 7.6 million adult illiterates in Nepal, 67 percent are female (almost 5.1 million).  Besides, a great number of primary and lower secondary school age children are also missing out on their right to an education, running the risk of creating a new generation of illiterates.   

Nepal urgently needs increased political commitment to literacy backed by adequate resources to scale up effective programmes.  Efforts undertaken in the past are laudable, yet insufficient.  The soon to be launched “Literate Nepal Mission” that has the ambitious goal to eradicate illiteracy by 2015 holds many promises. The UN Country Team, through the United Nations Development Assistance Framework 2013-2017 is set to work with the government to eradicate the root causes of the high vulnerability of illiterate people and it will continue to support the Ministry of Education to plan and implement literacy programmes. 

This year’s International Literacy Day is dedicated to “cultivating peace”. It provides a great opportunity to promote the importance of literacy for social inclusion that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement defines as at the heart of the peace process.  

Basanti, an ex combatant from Hetauda, who learned basic literacy and numerical skills as part of an UN Interagency Rehabilitation Programme, can testify how strongly literacy and peace are interconnected.  She changed her condition from an illiterate ex-combatant to a literate business woman. “I now can independently count and deal with money transactions and my small carpet business in Kathmandu flourishes” she says. 

Basanti and Kamala, the young women from Hetauda and Bajura, will probably agree that reading and writing not only makes their daily life easier, but that it helps them to play their very unique and absolutely irreplaceable roles in Nepal’s transition to democracy and peace.

NB: This Op-Ed article, written by Axel Plathe has been published in My Republica on 8 September 2012

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