By Nicole Graham, Humanitas Global
In 1965, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named September 8 the International Literacy Day. This day was created to mobilize the global community around literacy as a means of empowerment. Since then, schools, governments and communities have rallied to increase literacy rates, particularly in the developing world.
Demonstrating a large success for the movement, over 60 percent of all countries reporting data had literacy rates of 95 percent or higher. Despite the global achievement, many countries struggle with low literacy rates.
Literacy rates for youths, according to UNESCO’s latest data, 2012:
Literacy rates for adults, according to UNESCO’s latest data, 2012:
As can be seen by the above maps generated by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS), Africa lags behind significantly in adult literacy rates. The countries worst off have rates below 40 percent: Benin (34.7 percent), Guinea (29.5 percent), Niger (28.7 percent), Chad (25.70 percent), and Burkina Faso (21.80 percent). The highest literacy rate belongs to Zimbabwe, with 90.7 percent.
In Burkina Faso, child enrollment rates are among the lowest in the world. The state lacks the ability to cover the entire territory with educational infrastructure, and drop-out rates are high. Only one percent of children are enrolled in preschool and 72 percent of Burkina Faso youths age 15 to 24 do not achieve primary education.
Due to negative or stagnant growth, most sub-Saharan African countries do not possess the resources to improve educational infrastructure. Students struggle to get to school, as 70 percent of Africa remains rural with schools often far away and difficult to reach. A lack of roads and transportation discourage students from making long and sometimes perilous journeys. Furthermore schools struggle to consistently pay teachers, maintain a schoolhouse, and pay for adequate water and sanitation.
Girls are further challenged to obtain an education due to menstruation, household tasks, and aiding with childrearing that prevent them from attending class consistently. Roughly 39 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa are married before the age of 18, which often prevents them from attending and finishing school. While a global problem, in Africa, 17 countries either allow marriage below 18 years of age, have gender discriminating minimum age requirements for marriage, or have inconsistencies between minimum age of sexual consent and minimum age of marriage.
Globally, gender-specific literacy rates demonstrate a divergence, with 87 percent of female youths and 92 percent of male youths exhibiting basic literacy in 2012. For adults (those ages 15 or older), 80 percent of women are literate compared to 89 percent of males.
So why is it that Zimbabwe has such a higher literacy rate than the rest of the continent? According to a recent survey by the Financial Gazette of Zimbabwe called HR Perspectives: Priorities of the Zimbabwean employee, findings indicated that Zimbabweans prioritize school fees above all other related expenses. The Zimbabwean government has prioritized education as the highest priority in its national budget and passed legislation denoting education a right of children regardless of race, gender or religion. Most recently, the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court changed the legal minimum age of marriage to 18 years old. Though equal numbers of boys and girls were attending primary school, the number of girls attending secondary school was half that of the number of boys. The previous Marriage Act, recognizing 16 as the legal minimum age for marriage was identified as a driving factor in reducing a girl’s education.
Improving literacy rates is central to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Providing women with primary education reduces child mortality by one-sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds. A cycle of poverty can be disrupted with increased education, effectively reducing communicable disease, hunger and poor nutrition in tandem. Maintaining education as a high priority, identifying challenges to providing and accessing an education, and creating more supportive national policies are key to improving literacy rates and empowering individuals, communities, and nations around the world.