What do we mean by literacy?

UNESCO defines literacy as “…the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society”.

Literacy is also a human right, since it falls within the right to education as defined by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  • Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Literacy is an enabler of rights, providing individuals with the tools to understand and defend their legal rights. Generally, it is the poorest populations and the most socially excluded that are the most illiterate.

The benefits of literacy

  • you are can be an active citizen and are more likely to vote and participate within politics and civil society
  • the positive effects on a person’s physical well-being – better educated people tend to live longer, healthier lives with more leisure and healthier children
  • positive effects on cultural practices and beliefs (e.g. educated women are less likely to undergo female genital mutilation)
  • informed choices around reproductive health (educated people tend to have fewer children, and have them at larger intervals)
  • an empowering effect on women in terms of gender equality – literate women are able to compete with men in the workplace, as well as participate in the decision-making within the household
  • ability to make informed choices around family health
  • opportunities for poverty alleviation – there is evidence to suggest that any education =- primary, secondary or adult education can result in increased earnings of up to 57%

The achievements so far:

  • 150 years ago, only 10% of the world’s population had basic reading and writing abilities. Today, four out of every five people do. This explosion in literacy rates occurred while the world’s population quintupled, from 1.2 billion in 1850 to some 6.7 billion in 2008
  • Literacy rates are continuing to rise across the globe. In 1950 just over half of the world’s population (56%) was literate; by 1980 70% was literate; in 1990 that increased to 75% and in 2004 that was 82% It is predicted that by 2015 that figure will have reached 86%
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia and the Arab states, literacy rates increased by more than 10% between 1990 and 2000
  • The three regions lagging behind the rest of the world in the literacy stakes – sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia and the Arab states – are experiencing the highest increases in school enrolment rates in the world
  • Despite such progress, it is unlikely that the target of achieving universal primary education by 2015 will be met
  • The number of years spent at school is also increasing – more people are getting an education and their education is getting longer. The greatest increase in schooling years has occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, where a child attending school today (2009) will receive, on average, 1.1 years of schooling more than a child would have just 10 years ago, in 1998
  • Rapid progress is being made regarding gender parity in school enrolment. In 1998 Afghanistan had a gender parity index (GPI) of 0.081, but by 2002 that had already reached 0.52. Benin, Chad, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Guinea, India, Morocco, Nepal and Yemen have also registered similar improvements. Girls seem to do better than boys at school in every part of the world, and girls also tend to drop out of school less often than boys in every region except for sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia

But we’re not there yet…

Despite these benefits, the target for universal literacy remains elusive. According to UNESCO:

  • 771 million people over the age of 15 live without basic literacy skills
  • Of these, 132 million are young people aged between 15-24 years
  • Women account for 64% of adults worldwide who cannot read or write with understanding, which is virtually unchanged from the 1990 figure of 63%. In other words, the proportion of illiterate women is not decreasing
  • About 100 million children are still not enrolled in primary school, 55% of them girls
  • Sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia and the Arab states still have low literacy rates of around 60%
  • MDG 2 – Universal primary education seems unlikely to be met by 2015 and there are concerns around the quality of some education being offered
  • Most schooling in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia and the Arab states tends to be overcrowded, understaffed and teachers poorly trained and resourced
  • School enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa continues to be challenged by high fertility rates, putting even further strain on already-overloaded school systems. Achieving MDG 2 will require further acceleration of enrolment rates, but with the number of school-age children increasing rapidly and limited financial resources, this seems unlikely
  • There is a fear that in the scramble to achieve universal primary education, a number of countries are neglecting their secondary and tertiary education structures

So what can be done?

UNESCO outlines key areas in its Education for All initiative that could lead the way to achieving 100% literacy levels throughout the world:

  • Focus not just on universal primary enrolment but also a universal completion of primary and secondary school enrolment
  • Recognise ‘multilinguism’ in education – calling for a balance between local languages and the more dominant regional languages
  • Linking the role of literacy and education with poverty reduction and socio-economic development
  • Double the current funding to the education and literacy initiatives to US$7 billion per year if literacy targets are to be met by 2015

Further Information

UNESCO is a great source of information about global education. Check out their website at and their Education for All website.