Empowering women through literacy empowers us all

Sep 8, 2010

Photo: UNESCO, Bakary Emmanuel Daou

Her story is the story of almost 800 million people. It’s a story about textbooks and teachers that never were. The schools were there for Lourença de Brito. She just couldn’t attend them. At an early age in the archipelago nation of Cape Verde, de Brito had to work in subsistence agriculture. Education wasn’t an option.

“If I had been sent to school when I was a little girl, I would certainly be somebody today because I’m inquisitive,” de Brito said recently. “But I wasn’t sent to school because I had to work on the farm, tend the animals and fetch wood.”

That’s where the story usually ends. Around the world, 796 million adults (15 years and older) are illiterate. Two-thirds are women – women who, similar to de Brito, are diverted from reading and writing, often by familial and economic circumstances. September 8 is International Literacy Day, and on this day, UNESCO and UNDP are joining forces to spotlight efforts to increase literacy, especially in Southern Asia (where 412 million adults can’t read and write) and sub-Saharan Africa (where 176 million can’t read and write). The combined regions are home to 74 percent of the world’s illiterate adults.

De Brito is one of the new success stories. Under the Cape Verdean government’s literacy programme, she’s learning to read and write, and has said, “Now I am really happy and only God knows what joy I feel!” UNESCO is bestowing a 2010 International Literary Prize to Cape Verde’s Directorate-General for Literacy and Adult Education – the department in the country’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education that implemented the programme helping de Brito and scores of other women in Cape Verde.

Other 2010 UNESCO International Literary Prizes are being awarded to Nepal’s Non-Formal Education Centre, Egypt’s Governorate of Ismalia, and Germany’s State Institute for Teacher Training and School Development – each of which has used innovative programmes to increase literacy rates in marginalized communities.

International Literacy Day is one of many parallel projects that UNESCO is overseeing to increase literacy rates 50 percent by 2015 – the target year of the Millennium Development Goals.

“All of the goals, including education, are related,” explains UNDP’s most senior policy Director, Olav Kjørven.

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