Literacy is key to unlocking the cycle of poverty - 'Houston Chronicle' (United States)
Published in the Houston Chronicle (United States) on 7 September 2012.
Today is International Literacy Day.
If you can read that sentence, you are more fortunate than 775 million men and women, and 122 million girls and boys. We speak of the "digital age" as if it were a given. But for millions of people - and most of them are women - these words have no meaning, literally. On the sidelines of the global village, they get none of the benefits of globalization and suffer all its costs.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization led a study on the impact of illiteracy in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and the San Pablo State in Brazil. The facts are clear - illiteracy correlates to far higher unemployment.
Illiterate adults are more vulnerable to ill heath, exploitation and human rights abuse. They are more likely to be unemployed and paid less. Unable to read or write, they are stunted from reaching their full potential.
The case is equally clear on the power of education. One additional year in school can increase a woman's earnings by 10 percent to 20 percent over a lifetime. Women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be educated on HIV prevention. Children of parents with a basic education are more likely to survive past the age of 5.
Illiteracy locks communities into vicious cycles of poverty that lay the conditions for violence and strife. Forty percent of the world's out-of-school kids of primary-school age live today in conflict-affected countries.
There is nothing inevitable about illiteracy. This is a challenge we can overcome.
In 2000, the countries of the world agreed to halve adult literacy by 2015. In 2003, the United Nations launched the International Literacy Decade as a way to mobilize attention and resources. The decade closes this year, and we have made progress. Across the world, communities and countries have reached children and adults to teach them to read and write. As a result, the lives of 90 million more young men and women and adults have been transformed.
This is not enough. Not with population growth, not with a global economic crisis. Three years away from the 2015 deadline, we must do more. Literacy must become the breakthrough strategy for equity and development that it can be.
First, governments must resist the temptation of education cuts, despite economic pressures. Education is simply the best path out of the crisis; it is the surest long-term investment in development.
We need to make sure girls and boys go to and stay in school. No one should end schooling without being able to read. This means they must have something to read - good libraries - and good teachers to help them.
We must think big, to make literacy happen outside formal schooling - in the workplace, in libraries and community centers. We can do much more with new information and communication technologies to widen learning opportunities for all. This requires alliances for literacy, especially with major private companies.
Finally, we must focus where needs are most acute - in countries emerging from conflict, moving from autocracy to democracy, from poverty to prosperity. In these situations, education provides a stake in peace. It is the best way to build the future.
UNESCO is acting at all these levels. Our literary program in Afghanistan has trained 250,000 learners in 18 provinces, 60 percent of whom are women. Over the next five years, we will reach 20 million Egyptian citizens. The new state of South Sudan was born last year with 80 percent of its adults lacking basic skills. UNESCO is helping the Juba government structure an Education Ministry to meet the needs of a population afflicted by years of conflict. In Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania, we are working with Procter and Gamble, the Packard Foundation and Microsoft to bolster learning and literacy. In Pakistan we are supporting women's literacy through mobile learning applications.
Illiteracy, today, is synonymous with hopelessness and poverty. We must turn this around.
Think of Khalida, a young Afghan woman enrolled in a UNESCO course at a training center in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. She was hesitant at first to join the course, but she changed her mind and she's glad she did. In her words, "I learned many new techniques and realized that, as an Afghan woman, I can serve my community. When I have completed this course, I will be able to establish my own business." Khalida is the beginning of a new Afghanistan. This is the power of literacy for peace.
Bokova is director-general of UNESCO; Bush is UNESCO's honorary ambassador for the Decade of Literacy.