International Literacy Day: What’s Being Done to Tackle Illiteracy?

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International Literacy Day: What’s Being Done to Tackle Illiteracy?

Robin Wyatt, education, literacy, writing, HOPE foundation, children, Chennapatna, Karnataka, India
Today is International Literacy Day! As a development communications company, we naturally believe strongly in improving global literacy rates, and we’re always delighted when we get the chance to support literacy-focused projects through our visual communications services. Since it’s also the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO-recognised day of literacy, we thought we’d compile a short update on where the world is up to with regards eradicating illiteracy.

Robin Wyatt, education, literacy, writing, HOPE foundation, children, Chennapatna, Karnataka, India
These children in Chennapatna, India, are learning to write. Their teacher remarks that low school fees, together with the children’s eagerness to attend, are helping to change local parents’ mindsets about education. Our photographer, Robin Wyatt, captured this image and others for HOPE foundation in the state of Karnataka, and produced a suite of communications materials to help catalyse its drive to raise sufficient funds to expand the school’s offering to secondary level. Illiteracy would prevent these children from entering secondary school, so they’re working hard to succeed.

Overcoming illiteracy globally: how are we doing?

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 86% of the world’s population aged 15 and above can read and write. The literacy rates differ by gender: globally, 90% of males and 83% of females are literate. These statistics are from 2015, as we await the compilation of 2016’s figures. Meanwhile, the International Literacy Association says that those percentages amount to 781 million people who cannot read or write basic sentences.

Among the lowest ranking countries for national literacy are Afghanistan at 38%, the Central African Republic (CAR) at 37%, Burkina Faso at 36%, South Sudan at 32% and Guinea at 30%. At the far end of the scale is Niger, where just 19% of the overall population are literate; for women, it’s a mere 11%. Indeed, on the whole within these societies, it’s females who fare the worst not only in terms of their literacy levels but also in terms of their access to education.

How does illiteracy hinder personal and social progress?

Illiteracy excludes people from workplaces and hinders economic empowerment. Being able to read and write is vital for most forms of employment. Even for agricultural workers and manual labourers, there can be a need to read instructions and jot down numbers. In terms of education, illiteracy prevents further progress in the classroom, since knowledge is usually imparted and reinforced by way of books and blackboards. Once a child has fallen behind in learning his or her alphabet and how to use it, it’s very difficult to keep up with other aspects education beyond the basics. Without this education, the possibility of a family escaping the cycle of poverty becomes limited. In the digital age, illiteracy also excludes people from utilising technology and reaping the social and economic benefits it confers. Participating in society- and community-level decision-making, and even democratic elections, becomes more challenging as well.

Illiteracy even has health implications. It’s difficult to look after oneself and one’s family when one cannot fill out a form or read prescriptions, information leaflets and instructions on medication packets. When it comes to raising awareness of environmental issues, again it’s harder to change the attitudes and behaviours of those who cannot read, or to reinforce desired changes through information campaigns. (As a company that offers C4D consulting, we do at least feel we can help in such circumstances, since images can be a useful substitute and tell stories more effectively than words can).

Evidently, illiteracy is altogether a disempowering, even devastating experience. As Project Literacy stresses, “literacy is central to achieving nearly every one of the Sustainable Development Goals”.
Robin Wyatt, education, literacy, writing, Peace Corps, girl, child, Kolda, Senegal
At Koumbadiouma’s primary school in Kolda, Senegal, a young girl practises the letter ‘L’ in lowercase. Globally, primary school enrolment rates increased from 83% in 2001 to 91% in 2015, but a lot more work needs to be done in Sub-Saharan African, where the five countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world are located. Image by CfD’s Robin Wyatt.

What prevents people from learning to read and write?

The causes are manifold; here are a few:

  • In low income households in many countries, families often send their children to work rather than to school, simply because they need additional income for survival.
  • Schools may lack the necessary resources to perform well. Either they cannot afford learning materials, or teachers’ wages are so low that they themselves don’t always turn up to teach.
  • Girls may be expected to marry young. Once in wedlock, they are frequently expected to undertake domestic tasks instead of going to school.
  • Severely malnourished children are less likely to have the energy to attend school, or to be able to concentrate in class if they do go.
  • In countries where menstruation is a ‘taboo’ and sanitary products are harder to obtain, girls often miss a week of school each month during the relevant stage in their menstrual cycle.
  • A problem not limited to poorer countries, where there’s a lack of disability-specific teacher training, equipment and welfare systems, and perceptions about disabled children’s capabilities are skewed, access to education can be severely hindered.
  • Children living in remote areas might have to travel very long distances to reach their nearest school, and without available, affordable transport, the prospect of walking so far can prove a significant deterrent.
  • Political factors affect access to education. Afghanistan is an obvious example, where the Taliban denies this to girls.

What’s being done?

The United Nations’ 2015 progress chart measured improvements against the Millennium Development Goals. For Goal 3, ‘Achieve universal primary education’, excellent progress was made in North Africa and East Asia and good progress was secured across the rest of Asia. While this goal was not ultimately reached in an absolute sense, there was a net increase in primary school enrolment rates from 83% in 2001 to 91% in 2015. The paramount focus now needs to be on Sub-Saharan Africa, where the five countries that have the furthest to go in tackling illiteracy are found.
Robin Wyatt, education, literacy, writing, SignHealth Uganda, disability, hearing impaired, tactile
At Btenga-Kibanda Primary School, near the city of Masaka in Uganda, Margret uses tactile methods to help Junior learn. He has a hearing impairment, so learning to read and write is more challenging for him, though no less essential. Daylin, one of our visual storytellers based in the Southern Africa region, captured this image for SignHealth Uganda to help them highlight their teacher training work and programmes for hearing-impaired children to supporters.
The good news is that there are thousands of brilliant projects and initiatives underway across the globe. Here are the names of just a few who’re in the game:
Room to Read, logo
Through the delivery of literacy and gender equality programmes with partner schools, teacher training courses, collaboration with governments on child marriage issues and the distribution of 18 million books, Room to Read has so far reached ten million children.
International Literacy Association, logo
The ILA has 42 affiliate branches in countries of the Global South, which promote literacy, train teachers and improve institutional capacity. In Sierra Leone for example, the ILA has trained 30 teachers, who are in turn training 700 teachers from rural areas. 192 reading clubs have also been established.
Project Literacy, logo
Pearson, the educational publisher, founded this awareness-raising campaign; it now has 96 global partners, each contributing in some way to tackling illiteracy. It’s also funded the Project Literacy Lab, a mentor scheme for social entrepreneurs whose initiatives all aid learning. The next three entries on this list are examples of these.
AFRIpads, logo
This social enterprise manufactures reusable, effective sanitary pads. Its Menstrual Kits have reached 750,000 girls, in part through distribution by aid organisations. One of the company’s founding aims was to reduce the need for girls to miss school.
Edom Nutrition Solutions, logo
This Kenyan company manufactures fortified, nutrient-rich sachets of maize meal, which provide a respite from the symptoms of malnutrition. At a price of US $ 0.40 for a 250g packet, these are an affordable solution to a problem that gets in the way of many kids going to school or being able to focus while in class.
Ubongo, logo
This social enterprise produces and broadcasts popular educational television and radio shows in four East African countries. Every week, five million children tune in to learn maths, reading and science.
Strømme Foundation, logo
This Norwegian organisation is known for microloans, a rights-based approach to problems like child marriage and a strong emphasis on education as a means to lift people out of poverty. One of the many young women it’s assisted is Rachana from Nepal, whose story was so powerful that she was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. She resisted the marriage her father had planned for her at the age of 15 because of her desire to further her education; with support from Strømme Foundation, she went on to found a community organisation to educate girls on the disadvantages of child marriage. You can watch her speech here.
And finally...

Malala Fund
Malala Fund, logo
Established by the young Pakistani champion of the right to education and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai herself, the Fund advocates for a world in which every girl can complete 12 years of schooling. It invests in education leaders in developing countries and in upscaling organisational capacity, among many other great schemes.
All of these wonderful initiatives give us hope that eradicating illiteracy is indeed possible. We’ll be keeping an eye on progress towards Social Development Goal 4, which commits to ensuring inclusive and quality education for all. Needless to say, we stand ready to assist education-focused projects with their visual communications, wherever they may be. Don’t hesitate to get in touch!