International Literacy Day: Learning to read and write doesn’t just change lives, it saves them

Teachers and learning

If you're reading this article, you probably take your literacy for granted.

But for almost 800 million people over the age of 15, being illiterate means so much more than not being able to read a book or a newspaper. It can mean the dfiference between their children living and dying. It can affect their chances of avoiding and surviving HIV/AIDS, malaria and diarrhoea.

And being able to read and write can mean better chances of economic prosperity for them, their family and their community. More than 170 million people would be out of poverty if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, according to the United Nations agency UNESCO. For each additional year that someone stays in school, they will earn up to 10% additional income.

That's why the theme of this year's International Literacy Day today is “Literacy and Sustainable Development”.

Events will be held around the world, with the main global celebration in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The government there, in co-operation with UNESCO, is holding an international conference on girls’ and women’s literacy and education in support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative.

One organisation that works to tackle poverty through education in developing countries is Dubai Cares. Its chief executive Tariq Al Gurg said: “The power of literacy should not be underestimated. It forms the core of modern-day education as it gives individuals from all walks of life a very effective tool to develop their skills and articulate their thoughts and ideas.

“It also provides them with a springboard for bigger socio-economic opportunities. Through literacy, children are building up a sound foundation of communication and reasoning skills that will in turn help them develop into team workers, leaders and problem solvers.”

UNESCO figures show that 781 million people – 16% of the world's population over the age of 15 – are illiterate and 64% of them are female, a figure that hasn't changed since 1990. In India alone there are 286 million illiterate adults – four times the population of France.

Educated mothers means reduced child mortality. Women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be educated about HIV/AIDS, malaria and diarrhoea. If all mothers completed primary education, child deaths would drop by 15%. If all completed secondary education, that would become a 49% decrease.

Despite slow global progress in reducing the number of illiterate adults, there are examples of success. In Bangladesh, women’s literacy more than doubled from 1990 to 2011. In Ethiopia, the number of literate young people increased by nearly 20% between 2000 and 2011.

UNESCO says: “A good quality basic education equips pupils with literacy skills for life and further learning. Lliterate parents are more likely to send their children to school, literate people are better able to access continuing educational opportunities;and literate societies are better geared to meet pressing development. “


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