'If you teach women to read, the whole village learns'

8th March 2013 at 00:00
New UN targets should focus on adult literacy, campaigners say

After nearly 15 years of effort, the United Nations (UN) has made significant strides towards its Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education. But the success has had little impact on earlier targets to improve literacy rates across the world.

Now lifelong learning campaigners are pressing the case for the education of adults to be included in the post-2015 development goals, to help prevent the children of those adults growing up illiterate.

Later this month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and children's charity Unicef will host a conference in Dakar, Senegal, to consult on the development targets, an event that is expected to be very influential on the final submission to the UN General Assembly.

Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, is calling for the UN to focus on literacy for all as it decides its targets.

"There are nearly 800 million adults who don't read and write, and 70 per cent of them are women. That hasn't changed in 20 years," Mr Tuckett said. "If you don't teach women to read and write, their children don't do so well. It's like the proverb: if you teach women to read and write, the whole village learns."

Children who receive a primary education end up losing their skills once they leave formal schooling if they do not live in communities where literacy is a part of daily life, he added.

Since the Millennium Development Goals were set in 2000, the number of primary school children out of education has been almost halved to 61 million, according to last year's progress report. In sub-Saharan Africa, the most educationally deprived part of the world, more than three- quarters of children receive a primary education, compared with only 58 per cent in 1999.

But adult literacy rates have only increased by about 12 per cent, and that success is mostly because of efforts in China. An earlier set of UN targets, labelled Education for All but given lower priority than the millennium goals, called for a 50 per cent reduction in illiteracy over the 25 years from 1990 to 2015.

"We've spent an awful lot of money for universal primary education and what was undermined was Education for All," Mr Tuckett said. "What we need is the whole thing together. Next time, what we want to do is to create more holistic education goals."

According to a 2011 Unesco report, literacy rates in some areas are in fact expected to have fallen since the development targets were set: Pakistan, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea have all been failing to meet targets in recent years.

Projects around the world have been attempting to bridge the gap, particularly in the education of women. Nirantar works in New Delhi, India, to improve literacy among women in marginalised communities, such as Muslims and Dalits - the people traditionally regarded as "untouchables".

In one project, a group trained women intensively in literacy skills, writing, reporting and editing. The women then launched their own newspaper, carrying local news from their town of Karwi in Uttar Pradesh, along with some national and international news. Known as the "barefoot reporters", the women won a national journalism award in 2004.

In Burkina Faso, Mr Tuckett said, efforts to support nomadic people's increasing desire for education with schools that are adapted to their mobile lifestyle have come with conditions attached: if families want their sons to be educated, they must allow their daughters to attend, too. This decision has helped to equalise access to education.

Sobhi Tawil, senior programme specialist in the education research team at Unesco, said that no decisions have yet been made about what might be included in future education development goals.

He added that there are also calls to increase early years education, which is seen as offering a particularly strong return on investment given the importance of early childhood development.

But Mr Tawil said there are also arguments against focusing on different stages of education and for instead setting minimum standards of education for everyone. This would mean adults could have entitlements to further education if they had not yet reached the expected level.

"Primary education got disproportionate attention and it also narrowed the international development agenda to low-income countries," Mr Tawil said. "It became less relevant not just to developed countries but also to the middle-income countries."

Photo credit: Getty

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