International Literacy Day

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, then you’re part of the 84.1% of people worldwide that can call themselves literate! Hooray! You can read books, order food from a menu, follow road signs, access the news easily, send a text, keep a diary, use Twitter and Facebook, write letters and emails  to friends and employers and people in power… The list is almost endless. If you’re reading this, you have access to a skill that facilitates your everyday life.

I often take this for granted. I don’t think twice about how easy it is for me to text my housemates to let them know we’re out of loo roll, or read the instructions on the back of a microwave meal, or search for something to watch on Netflix. Even with my (relatively simple) student lifestyle, literacy is essential.

So, what about the other 15.9%? What about South Sudan, where only 27% of the entire adult population can read (the lowest percentage globally)? Or Afghanistan, where – although their overall literacy rate is a little better – only 12.6% of women can read? Personally, I couldn’t imagine a world without words. I’ve pretty much built my life around reading and writing; losing my literacy would feel almost like losing a sense! And yet, for more than 1 in 10 people (and more than 1 in 5 women), that’s a reality.

I chose to write about this today because it’s International Literacy Day: a date set aside to recognise the minority of people who are still unable to read. When it was first recognised in 1966, the global literacy rate was a little over 50%. Even though that figure has improved significantly in the last half century, it still needs to be better.

Literacy isn’t just a useful skill to have – in the modern world, it’s a vital one. Due to the nature of 21st century jobs and communications, being illiterate is enough to keep somebody in poverty. Can you imagine trying to find work in the UK if you were unable to read and write? You wouldn’t even be able to make a CV in the first place.


As is to be expected, low literacy rates correlate with high poverty rates in many countries. What’s perhaps even more worrying, though, is that the countries with the lowest female literacy rates also tend to be the places were women are most oppressed. Two thirds of the world’s illiterate population are female, and, even as literacy rates improve, women are still more disadvantaged.

People need to have access to resources that will help them to read. Without them, they have fewer chances to improve their living conditions through employment, to represent themselves, and to challenge the systems that are set up against them. Words have always been, and will always be, a powerful tool.

It’s all very well and good for me to sit here and blog about something going on thousands of miles away. I’ve never met an adult who couldn’t read, so the whole scenario seems very distant for me(and for you, probably). We might also make the excuse that there are other, more pressing issues at hand. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but what we can be certain about is this: improving literacy will also help to reduce poverty and work towards equality. Plus, it’s not like we are only capable of working on one problem at a time.

So how do we help? There are hundreds of charities dedicated to this issue, and you can find some of them here: Essentially, anything from donating old books, to giving a few pennies, or even volunteering your time could help. Even if you can’t afford to help right now, you can still spread awareness about this. The greater the number of people who are aware of this issue, the faster it can be acted on.

I think I’ll round this off with one of my favourite quotes, which may seem like the stereotypical
English student thing to do, but I think it’s pretty apt: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

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