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International Literacy Day – 8 September 2020

What is International Literacy Day?

Every year, September 8th marks UNESCO’s International Literacy day (ILD), which aims to raise awareness globally on the issues surrounding adult and child literacy. Unfortunately, despite progress made, literacy challenges persist with an estimated 750 million youth and adults worldwide who have still not achieved basic literacy; two-thirds of them are women, according to UNESCO’s Global Alliance for Literacy.

ILD 2020 will focus on literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond with a focus on the role of educators and changing pedagogies. The theme will highlight literacy learning in a lifelong learning perspective and therefore mainly focus on youth and adults.

The recent Covid-19 crisis has been a stark reminder of the existing gap between policy discourse and reality: a gap that already existed in the pre-Covid-19 era and is negatively affecting the learning of youth and adults who have no or low literacy skills and therefore tend to face multiple disadvantages. During Covid-19, in many countries, adult literacy programmes were absent in the initial education response plans, so the majority of adult literacy programmes that did exist were suspended with just a few courses continuing virtually, through TV and radio, or in open air spaces.

How has this impacted on women’s education?

Prior to COVID-19 women already spent three times as many hours on unpaid care work at home as men. Now, at home, women are more likely to take on additional educational and caring roles in comparison to men living the in the same household – women are now teaching children and caring for the sick and vulnerable. Immediately we see the return of women’s traditional gender roles on top of other work women may have contributed to the re-entrenching of social gender norms. Many girls have been taken out of education to return to household duties and may never return to school. Worldwide, COVID-19 responses rely upon the additional unpaid labour of women whose contributions are still under-recognised and under-valued.

Why is it important that women are supported to become more literate?

There are five key reasons why it is of vital importance to improve the literacy rates and consequently, the lives of women:

  1. Literacy lifts individuals out of poverty

Lacking basic reading and writing skills is a tremendous disadvantage. Literacy not only enriches an individual’s life, but it creates opportunities for people to develop skills that will help them provide for themselves and their family.

  1. Literacy improves the development of the wider community

The positive knock-on effect of educating girls can be seen in the wider social and economic benefits yielded for their communities. Increasing the emphasis towards women’s education positively impacts on each generation through raised expectations and increased self-esteem. Improving literacy facilitates employment whereby both males and females can contribute, helping the wider economy and community to thrive.

  1. Literacy reduces infant mortality rates

Illiteracy directly affects an individual’s health and wellbeing, so the importance of education on physical and mental health is vital. Those without education are more likely to be vulnerable to health problems, for example increased schooling reduces the risk of HIV infection and increases a sense of wellbeing.

Infant mortality rates drop significantly for women who have had primary education, and even more for those who complete secondary school. It is estimated that infant mortality decreases 9% for every year of education attained. This is because girls and women are able to educate themselves on health issues, which can help reduce the cycle of poverty and mortality rates in the long term.

  1. Literacy empowers women and girls

Breaking the cycle of illiteracy and improving self-esteem is crucial for women and girls in the developing world. By enabling them to become economically productive and independent, they become empowered and can take control of their lives. The importance of education in fostering personal autonomy, and creative and critical thinking skills is central to helping girls contribute to their societies.

  1. Literacy positively impacts economic growth beyond the local community

The impact of improving literacy in girls not only has a positive economic impact at a local and community level, but the productivity of the workforce flourishes at country level too by enhancing a country’s economic strength.

How are Soroptimists working to promote literacy around the globe?

Projects range from supporting the education of individuals, such as SI Bilston and District’s project to support a Panamanian young lady through university and SI Worcester’s project to support a young disabled lady to become a teacher in Uganda (Project #55084) to bigger projects such as SI Bombay Chembur’s Adult Literacy Drive, which consisted of weekly classes on literacy and vocational skills for 27 illiterate/semi-illiterate school dropouts. The project enabled the women to become independent, literate adults. (#55174)

Another project which was organised by SI Surrey Hills empowered the Nepali wives/widows of retired Gurkha soldiers, who settled in the UK following Joanna Lumley’s campaign and have no other language other than their tribal language, by teaching them basic literacy, numeracy and information about life in the UK. (#54985)

Literacy in a digital world

In 2017, the theme for ILD was, ‘Literacy in a digital world’ looking at what kind of literacy skills people need to navigate increasingly digitally-mediated societies, foreshadowing the events of 2020.

Soroptimists have supported women and young girls to become digitally literate in many ways:

  • SI Calcutta organised a workshop for a group of 17-25-year-old girls on digital literacy focusing on online banking and safety. (#54789)
  • SI Chennai purchased a laptop and overhead projector for a school in a deprived area of Chennai. (#54265) Locally purchased…increasing income as well as kit for the local population.
  • During the pandemic, SI San Fernando arranged with a local NGO to provide a second-hand computer system and IT technical support for a young student thus enabling her to continue her studies online and to move onto further education, enabling her to break the cycle of poverty she was born into and empowering her to achieve her goals.

Soroptimists educating, enabling and empowering women across the globe.

Yvonne Gibbon
APD People