Promoting literacy for a decade of action

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

January 2003

This article was first published in the UN Chronicle Magazine UNLD

The United Nations Literacy Decade 2003-2012 began with strong backing from the educational community as 500 teachers and representatives from educational institutions gathered at UN Headquarters in New York on 31 January for the conference, “Literacy Now: Building an Educated World”.

Hosted by the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations, the conference provided a platform for literacy experts to discuss issues and trends, including the use of information technologies and the impact of AIDS, gender discrimination and poverty on literacy rates. Delegates were given the opportunity to learn about successful projects from fellow educators and their students.

The statistics surrounding the issue of literacy are staggering: There are 877 million illiterate adults in the world and 113 million children not attending school, the majority of whom are women and girls.

In her conference address, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), highlighted the crucial role literacy plays in the enjoyment of a fulfilled and healthy life; “Education has been called the great equalizer and rightly so; it is a powerful instrument for reducing poverty and inequality. It is a powerful tool for improving health and social well-being, and laying the basis for sustained economic growth.”

The senior advisor of the Education Programme Division at the UN Children’s Fund, Elaine Furniss, discussed uses of literacy as a political tool, explaining that it is not only the means for fulfilling the right to education but also for accessing other rights, such as the right to information, and freedom of opinion and expression.

She commented: “There are some who would rather see such rights not be made available to all. Literacy has often been a tool of discrimination in the past by its content and by the exclusion of literacy materials from certain groups … Situations of emergency and crisis are always places where there is a lack of literacy materials and few opportunities to become literate. They may also be the places most open to using literacy as a tool for discrimination against the displaced, minorities and refugees.”

The United Nations Literacy Decade aims to significantly increase literacy rates, especially among women and girls and those living in places with high levels of illiteracy, such as Africa and South Asia. It provides a backdrop to the implementation of the eight Millennium Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in 2000, two of which concern education; Goal two, to ensure that all children complete a full course of primary schooling; and Goal three, to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015.

Commenting on Goal three, the Executive Director said: “Unless far greater efforts are made, this goal is not likely to be met. While there are many obstacles to closing the gender gap in education, none of them is insurmountable. Many of these obstacles are solely in the mind: some policymakers, political leaders and even parents still do not see the overriding need to educate girls.”

The issue of literacy will therefore be high on the global agenda in the coming months and years. As the Executive Director noted at the conference: “It is absolutely essential that today’s young people, who comprise half of the global population, be given the knowledge and tools they need to protect their lives and their futures.”

Liberty & Humanity