It’s World Book Day, but millions of children worldwide still cannot read

It’s World Book Day, but millions of children worldwide still cannot read

Today, 1st March 2018, marks World Book Day in the United Kingdom; however 250 million children worldwide are failing to acquire basic literacy skills.

World Book Day is organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), to promote reading, publishing and copyright. It is celebrated among children and in schools to encourage reading.

Across the globe literacy levels have been increasing over the past few decades with the youth literacy rate rising from 83% to 91%.

Similarly, over the last 20 years the number of illiterate youth declined from 170 million to 115 million. This progress is largely due to the expansion of education opportunities.

However, several countries in West and Central Africa have youth literacy rates of less than 50%. These countries have struggled to increase school enrolment at both primary and secondary levels over recent years.

Nevertheless, even when universal primary education is accessible, some countries, such as Malawi and Zambia, show low youth literacy rates. This suggests that enrolment as well as retention in school is important, as is the quality of education.

There is also a huge gender imbalance in literacy rates in developing countries.

In West and Central Africa and South Asia, illiterate women outnumber their male counterparts.  The gender parity index is 0.79 and 0.91 for West and Central Africa and South Asia, respectively. This means that there are 79 literate women for every 100 literate men in Central and West Africa and 91 literate women for every 100 literate men in South Asia.

UNESCO report that Niger has the world’s lowest literacy rates, where only 19% of the population is literate; 27% of men and just 11% of women.

The five countries with the lowest levels of literacy are all in Africa: Niger, South Sudan, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Central African Republic.

Afghanistan has the lowest literacy level of any non-African country with 38%; 52% for men and 24% for women.

A recent UNICEF report found conflict as a key factor driving illiteracy among youth: 30% of young people between the ages 15-24 living in conflict or disaster affected areas are illiterate. This equates to 59 million young people.

Again, the figure is higher for females with 33% of women and girls in conflict or disaster affected areas being illiterate, compared to 24% for boys and young men.

School attendance, accessibility and retention are key to improving literacy rates across the world, but particularly in developing countries.

Current reports suggest that 1 in 5 children worldwide do not attend school, with 61 million not attending primary school.

Without the opportunity to learn, children can’t develop to their full potential and are more likely to be trapped in cycles of poverty, poor health and forced labour – often in dangerous environments.

In 2016 alone, UNICEF provided school books and learning materials to 15.7 million children around the world.

In order to improve literacy levels a number of measures need to be undertaken, for example developing capacity in policies, programme delivery and literacy assessments. Literacy also needs to be advocated for on the global agenda to ensure synergies between different actions, including through multi-stakeholder partnerships and networks.

Literacy actions for girls and women need to be scaled up to reduce and abolish the gender gap in literacy. Innovative modes of literacy delivery, including the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) could also be critical in increasing literacy rates.


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Image credit: AkshayaPatra Foundation

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