Demand your right to read says UNESCO Special Envoy Forest Whitaker
In a special interview for International Literacy Day UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation Forest Whitaker talks about his transformational work with young people in South Sudan and the key role literacy plays in the Sustainable Development Agenda.
What impact is your recently launched literacy programme having in Torit, South Sudan?
We had been working in South Sudan for a few years, and we asked some of the youth in our communities of action what they most needed. The most common answer we heard: books.
Since then, we’ve opened a network of Community Learning Centres—with plans for more—in South Sudan and Uganda. Working with UNESCO, we’re holding literacy classes for these underserved communities, and each centre also houses a small library where people can come and check out books.
The impact so far has been really encouraging. Many of our classes are targeted toward women and girls, whose literacy rates in South Sudan especially are much lower than boys’ and men’s. Another incredibly positive part of this story is that these centres have become gathering places—some of them host community meetings or soccer practices as well as places people can come to learn to read.
How does literacy and lifelong learning fit with peacebuilding and the other Sustainable Development Goals?
Promoting literacy and fostering lifelong learning are the building blocks that we need in order to achieve the SDGs and to facilitate peacebuilding more broadly. It’s impossible for us to make progress in reducing inequality, encouraging responsible consumption, or ensuring everyone lives healthy lives if people are not able to educate themselves. I see universal literacy as a starting point for advancing the entire sustainable agenda.
Why is it so important to empower youth and especially women living in conflict-affected areas in the world or in refugee-camps through education?
It’s important that every woman and man has a voice and can express her or his thoughts and needs, and this is all the more imperative for those living in the midst of poverty, conflict, or violence. Too often, these vulnerable people are not heard.
I think people in power need to work with these vulnerable populations, especially women and youth, to enable them to participate in the political and peacekeeping processes.
Improving literacy rates among people in conflict situations will not only better allow them to take part in these discussions, but it will also let them communicate, share ideas, and organize amongst each other. Together, they can be a powerful force for change.
Looking to the future challenges literacy faces what would be your message to the international community and, in particular, young people?
I think the international community has to commit to leave no one behind, especially when it comes to literacy. In the developed world, the literacy rate is near 100 per cent; in some developing countries, it’s still well below 50 per cent. If we want to make progress toward achieving the Sustainable Agenda, this must change.
In many countries, there is also still a large gap in literacy rates between men and women. The total literacy gender gap around the world is about 7 percentage points. This is also something we must work to correct. Every person—regardless of origin, gender or country—has a right to learn to read. My message to young people is that they should demand and exercise this right.
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