In 1966, UNESCO declared International Literacy Day to raise awareness about the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and fundamental human right, and to move the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.
It is estimated that around 14 per cent of the global population is illiterate. Though levels of illiteracy have fallen since the 1980s, challenges to literacy persist with at least 773 million young people and adults worldwide lacking basic literacy skills in 2020. Moreover, there are still enormous differences between regions, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia where illiteracy is much higher.
A fast-changing global context has contributed new and unexpected aspects over the past years, hampering literacy progress and widening inequalities across regions, countries, and populations. In low- and middle-income countries, the share of 10-year-old children who could not read and understand a plain text with comprehension has increased from 57 per cent in 2019 to an estimated 70 per cent in 2022.
The COVID setback has dealt a huge blow to the literacy mission. With school-lockdowns for prolonged periods and suspension of adult literacy programmes and
other crises, such as climate change and conflicts, the challenges have been exacerbated.
The consequences of illiteracy
There is a strong connection between illiteracy and poverty. People who can read and write have a great advantage over those who cannot, for studying and training. This means literate people generally earn more and even enjoy better health. A UN study showed that two-thirds of all illiterate people in the world are female. This problem is due to factors such as insufficient educational opportunities for girls or the tradition in some countries for girls’ early marriage.
The future of literacy
Some experts argue that we need to re-think the notion of literacy. These days, knowing how to read is a limited skill if the person does not know how to use a computer or smartphone. We also need to expand the idea of literacy to include skills such as knowing how to use a web browser, create a document on a computer or even send a text message by phone. In today’s digital era, learning to read and write has become more accessible, with the internet and the widespread use of computers and smartphones. UNESCO suggests that literacy has become more important than ever as the world changes towards “knowledge-based societies” which depend on communication rather than creating products.
International Literacy Day celebrations
Celebrations to promote the significance of literacy as a basic human right and a key component of lifelong learning, are events organized by various institutions, including schools, libraries, and non-governmental organisations, to encourage and stimulate literacy initiatives, hold workshops, and spread awareness about the significance of being truly literate in today’s world.
2023 UN Literacy Day Theme
‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies. Celebrations at the global, regional, country, and local levels will be held. At the global level, a conference will be organized in person and online on Friday, 8 September 2023, in Paris, France. This global celebration will include the award ceremony of the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes to announce this year’s outstanding prize-winning programmes. It will join efforts to accelerate progress towards the achievement of SDG 4 (education) and reflect on the role of literacy in building more inclusive, peaceful, just, and sustainable societies.
The role of Soroptimism
Soroptimist Clubs are aware of the negative attitudes towards women in societies who have lower literacy levels in most regions. And therefore, a majority of clubs start projects based on SDG 4 (Education) overlapping with SDG 5 (gender equality and women’s empowerment). Our SI Club Dhaka has been running two literacy centres for nearly 75 marginalised children (mostly girls) for nearly 35 years now, in two different disadvantaged areas of Dhaka city. These children are victims of social exclusion and live in slums, having slipped through the network of direct inclusive schooling. In earlier years, the centres were supported by Friendship Link club SI Penrith and also by SI Bournemouth. Our members donate an annual amount and generous donations are also given by friends, family, and sponsors. The centres are housed in regular schools (rented) and after regular school hours classes (for 2 hours) are provided, 5 days a week. School uniforms, school bags, shoes, and socks, learning materials and stationery are provided free of cost. Snacks are provided, which includes 2 boiled eggs (donated by a member who runs a poultry business). After their 2-year duration, some of the children enter mainstream schools in the neighbourhood. The curriculum is both formal and non-formal and often children celebrate international world days, relevant to their lives.
Blog by Arifa Rahman, SI Dhaka, Bangladesh