Write to a Better Life

Over 130 million children worldwide have no opportunity to receive an education, the majority being girls as parents often send only their sons to school.  This discrimination is reflected in the fact that two-thirds of the total global illiterates are women! 

  • Sixty per cent of the millions of primary-age children who are not in school, are girls.

  • Girls make up two-thirds of the 100 million children who drop out of school.

"It was like emerging from the shadows" describes one Ethiopian woman who had just learned to read and write.  For this woman, and another 960 million adults like her, illiteracy has presented a formidable barrier to many of the values that the majority of us take for granted, such as personal liberation, social and economic progress, quality of life, human rights and dignity. 

As the population of the planet continues to swell and knowledge continues to accumulate at a breath taking rate a question we need to ask is why has the world not been able to educate its own children?  The statistics clearly show that education programmes have not been able to keep up with the population explosion.  They also show the irrefutable link between illiteracy and poverty; the one condition fuelling the other in a vicious circle that has become increasingly difficult to break.  Illiteracy is not a disease, to be eradicated like yellow fever, but rather it is a complex cultural condition linked to expectations and circumstances rooted in the environment.

Where the basic needs such as food, clothing, health and housing are inadequate, learning how to read and write obviously ranks as a fairly low priority, with the biggest slice of available resources, including such elements as time and energy, being devoted to the daily struggle for survival.  The means of improving the quality of life through knowledge remain beyond reach. 

People living in extreme poverty and rural environments sense that they have very little need for literacy, and until the environment and circumstances in which they live are transformed, they in fact have little need for it.  Virtually all other problems linked to illiteracy stem from this condition.

On a national scale, economic hardship means less public spending on education.  During the 60s and 70s for example, primary education for children was vastly expanded, however economic and structural difficulties during the past decade have seen a falling off, and even a reversal of this crucial development.  Thus, in 1985, more than 100 million children between the ages of six and 11 were not in school.  Of those children, the vast majority were in developing countries, where the population is growing fastest, and illiteracy is most widespread.  Most of these children are in danger of swelling the ranks of the world's adult illiterates in the years to come.

UNESCO believes adult and child education must go hand in hand, but recognises universal literacy will certainly not be achieved unless there is primary education for children.  In 1995 governments set targets and promised primary education for all bu 2015.  Many of those governments are failing to meet the targets adopted.

Apart from this problem, a poor country also lacks the resources for the necessary infrastructure to support literacy campaigns and encourage the newly literate to practise and retain their skills.  Another, more cultural, complication that arises in many developing countries trying to achieve literacy is the lack of a widely used language. For example, in Papua New Guinea, for example, there are more than 600 languages for three and a half million people!  Obviously to make significant progress in a situation like than, governments must decide on a language policy before implementing literacy policy.

Here again, we see poverty raising its ugly head, overcoming the difficulties caused by this situation takes an enormous effort in terms of resources.  However, the task is not impossible.  For example, Tanzania with its 126 tribal languages, chose to use Swahili as the national language, and although this was initially difficult to implement, it has produced excellent results with a high rate of literacy being achieved.  Ethiopia selected 15 of its most widely spoken languages for use in its literacy campaign and has also achieved positive results.

The Political Will

One of the most important factors in Tanzania's success was the real, and not just rhetorical, commitment of the government to make the population literate.  Too often literacy campaigns are only given lip service by governments which are not only short of money and trained manpower, but are also less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a more articulate population demanding fuller political participation and better government services.  Alternatively literacy campaigns are offered as a sort of consolation prize in the development sweepstakes, replacing other, less easily fulfilled demands for such strongly felt needs as land reform, water supplies, schools, access roads and facilities for crop storage.

Unless solutions are found to these difficulties the problem of illiteracy will become overwhelming.

It's a race against population growth.  If we cannot do anything with the population we have now, the prospects of finding the resources and the will to do something with a vastly larger population in the 21st century are not very hopeful.  Literacy matters!  It is the only route to earning power and millions are being denied a chance to break out of a lifetime of poverty.




copyright WAI 2000