Columnists Features

Need to reduce global illiteracy

ON September 8, the world will be commemorating the International Literacy Day (ILD) which is observed annually under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Illiteracy and the need for various nations to address the problems that emanate from illiteracy take centre stage on ILD.
Today, illiteracy, particularly in the developing world and among poor communities, remains a huge challenge and a major reason for the poverty that continues to afflict millions of people the world over.
As the world prepares to commemorate this important day, it is worthwhile to look at the current situation regarding illiteracy universally, and try to relate it to our local context to understand the impact of illiteracy on our future.
Let us be swift in noting that the world in general, and Zambia in particular, is committed to providing education for all by 2015. But with the situation that prevailed in the world at the close of 2013, this may be very difficult to attain, come 2015.
In observing the 2013 ILD, UNESCO indicated that millions of children were destined to go through life unable to read or write. On the other hand, the number of adults who cannot read or write has been declining due to efforts by governments to increase greater access to education.
However, while there have been such efforts made to create more classroom space that has led to increased enrolment in schools, it is still common in Zambia to find children who are unable to enter grade one because of insufficient space to cater for the needs of each and every child in all parts of the country.
In 2013, UNESCO indicated that “… millions of children are still out of school, and millions more leave primary school without basic literacy skills. In short, these children of the 21st century, most of whom are girls, are destined to live on the social and economic margins of our world. We need to keep our promise: Education for All.”
In the Zambian context, we still continue to have hundreds of children who leave school for social or economic reasons. In some cases, the education system itself eliminates some children from school through examinations at grade seven.
A number of 21st century Zambian children who have no parents to support them, or girl children who are forced into early marriages, leave school without adequate literacy skills.
It is the young girls who are being married off, the boys and girls that line the streets to beg for money and waste their lives inhaling drugs, who shall remain on the fringes of social and economic margins. They shall continue to be a burden to society.
The gloomy world picture at the close of 2013 showed that 774 million adults (aged 15 and above) were illiterate. Of that number, 124 million were aged between 15 and 24. And two thirds of these huge numbers were females.
It should continue to puzzle all – and be treated as a serious concern – that while the number of youths who cannot read or write is getting smaller, the proportion of young illiterate women is not, UNESCO points out.
These are the young men and women or elderly persons whom we get to meet in our lives who cannot read a prescription from a doctor or even understand the expiry dates on goods in supermarkets.
Those are the same men and women who struggle to fill in an application form or even read or send a text message on their mobile phones. These are the men and women who will find it difficult to read information which is meant to improve their skills in agriculture or any business they are engaged in.
It is estimated that with the current trends, the world may end up being saddled with 57 million out-of-school children in future. Any child in Zambia who leaves school early will add to that number. Particularly so since one in every tqo such children will be in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What perhaps is pretty worrying is that worldwide, 250 million children of school-going-age, whether in school or not, lack basic reading and writing skills. They are illiterate!
For such children, the future will be one of poverty, inequality and unstable poorly paid jobs with “… unfulfilled individual potential and limited ability to contribute to the well-being of their families and the communities they will be living in.”
It is expected that global efforts should be aimed at reducing illiteracy levels by half by 2015. The greatest worry though is that unless sustained policy efforts are in place, some societies will continue to suffer from high illiteracy levels.
Even sadder is that high illiteracy levels will continue to impede economic and social development and, as such, poverty will remain the order of the day.
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