/ 8 September 2021

International Literacy Day: Changing the world, one word at a time

(Graphic: John McCann)
More than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women. Working to change this can bring profound social and economic benefits. (Graphic: John McCann)

Every year on 8 September, International Literacy Day is observed to raise awareness and concern about global and local literacy levels.

If you can read this right now, you are more blessed than the almost 800-million adults and over 250-million children worldwide who lack basic literacy skills.

Yes, it’s true: even in this age of modern living, enlightenment, and technology, there are still people who can’t read, write or learn.

In South Africa, the statistics are bleak: according to a 2016 nationally representative survey, the adult illiteracy rate is a staggering 12%, and more than half (58%) of South African children do not learn to read fluently and with comprehension in any language by the end of grade four.

Illiteracy comes at a high price

Literacy is a fundamental pillar of broader education. When we have the confidence to read, we have the confidence to learn, both in- and outside the classroom.

Sadly, children and teenagers who have difficulty reading are more likely to drop out of school before completing their basic education. This creates a negative and profound ripple effect.

Did you know that The World Literacy Foundation estimated in 2015 that illiteracy costs the global economy $1.5-trillion a year?

No matter how ambitious one’s goals and efforts, a lack of basic literacy and numeracy abilities automatically disqualifies many people from a wide range of quality jobs, contributing to poverty and unemployment.

In fact, illiterate workers earn 30% to 42% less than their literate counterparts, according to 2015 study, and are also more likely than those with better literacy skills to suffer poor health, as found in 2013 research.

The gift of literacy

There is far more to literacy than being able to read a book or write a shopping list. Being able to read, write and comprehend what you’re reading gives you the building blocks to improve your quality of life and lays the groundwork for developing abilities needed to be self-sufficient.

Every literate woman marks a victory over poverty

Women account for more than two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people, according to UN agency Unesco. This statistic correlates with a 2012 estimation that 60% of chronically hungry people are women and girls.

When the illiteracy cycle is broken, girls will be able to become economically engaged and self-sufficient, gaining a valuable asset for their own success: self-respect.

Former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon stressed the transformative effect on both a family and the wider community when a woman is literate. In 2010, he said that literate women are more likely to send their children, especially their girls, to school.

Women become more economically self-sufficient and active participants in their respective country’s social, political, and cultural life when they learn to read and write.

READ Educational Trust, a nonprofit organisation, has been active in the education and literacy sectors since 1979. Visit the website at read.org.za