UNESCO'S NEW LITERACY INITIATIVE, LIFE AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR GENDER PARITY AND EQUALITY IN EDUCATION


By Ann-Therese Ndong-Jatta, Director, Basic Education Division, UNESCO

 

GREETINGS

 

Hon. Ji Zhou; Minister of Education, People‘s Republic of China , Hon. Ms Chinwe Nora Obaji; Minister of Education; Nigeria , Ms Rima Salah; Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF , Ms Maria Lourdes Almazan Khan; Chairperson, distinguished guests and participants.

 

On behalf of Mr Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO and Mr Peter Smith, Assistant Director-General for Education and on my own behalf, I would like to extend sincere appreciation to the Government of China and UNICEF for the opportunity to share the views of UNESCO on literacy and implications for achieving gender equity and equality in education in particular and all other development goals in general.

 

In my statement, I will touch on a couple of issues which will to some extent complement previous statements: first, literacy as a critical factor to promote gender equity and equality, second, global picture and trends of literacy, third, UNESCO's new literacy initiative, LIFE, and its implications and links with UNGEI focus.

 

LITERACY : A CRITICAL FACTOR

 

Literacy is a fundamental right for all girls and boys, women and men and very central to the quest for poverty reduction and sustainable development, which are essential for building democratic, peaceful and stable societies. Literacy enhances the capacity for the participation of all people in economic, social, political and cultural activities in a rapidly changing world. As a versatile tool, literacy can contribute to a wide range of areas, including conflict resolution, nutrition, health care, employment and livelihoods, cultural expression and improved quality of life. It is also an instrument of social justice, especially for promoting gender equality and for liberating people from discrimination and exclusion. Truly, literacy is an imperative for the attainment of Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

 

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan made some key policy linkages at the international launch of the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) in New York in February 2003, when he said that “the Decade is an affirmation of the inextricable link between literacy and our work to translate into reality the Millennium Declaration, adopted by all the world's governments as a blueprint for building a better world in the 21st century. Literacy is the prerequisite for a healthy, just and prosperous world.”

 

On the same occasion when Ms Laura Bush was named Honorary Ambassador for the Decade , Director-General of UNESCO, Mr. Köichiro Matsurra made the key policy linkages that “ Literacy is not only one of the six Education for All goals agreed to at the World Education Forum held in Dakar Senegal in April 2000, but it is central to the other five goals too. Moreover, evidence shows that increasing levels of literacy – particularly literacy among women – are a determining factor in reducing infant mortality rates and in improving child health.

 

More recently, the UN World Summit in New York in September 2005 reaffirmed the critical role of both formal and informal education in the achievement of poverty eradication and other development goals as envisaged in the Millennium Declaration, particularly basic education and training for eradicating illiteracy. Thus, there is widespread and highest-level recognition that literacy matters. Despite such commitments and proclamations, attention given to literacy attainments in many countries across the globe is not so favourable. Although developing countries are the worse affected, developed countries have a fair share of this universal problem mostly among ethnic minorities and migrant populations.

 

GLOBAL LITERACY PICTURE

 

Since Jomtien, literacy has remain ed the weakest link in EFA. Compared with universal primary education (UPE), it is conspicuous that less support has been provided for adult literacy. We observe that l iteracy has not attracted the levels of political interest, financial and human resources, technical backstopping, and community mobilization that it needs and deserves. Today, there are an estimated 771 million adults who are illiterate and 103 million children who are out of school in the world . In addition, many of those who enrol in school drop out without acquiring adequate literacy skills and competencies. Among young people who reach completion are those who are at best semi-literate and whose literacy competencies are so weak that they relapse into illiteracy. Almost two-thirds of those who have none or inadequate literacy skills and competencies are girls and women. This tendency of gender disparity in literacy rates has remained unchanged for 15 years since Jomtien. Our world more than ever before requires women and men to be equipped with capabilities to obtain, collate, organize and share information and generate knowledge. Girls and women, and in particular mothers require basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy to successfully access information concerning health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, the environment, children's education and the working world and, most importantly, to acquire knowledge and capacities that enable them continue learning throughout life.

 

EFA monitoring report highlights some progress made in literacy figures especially brought by a remarkable reduction of adult illiterate population of China where 181 million adult illiterates in 1990 came down to 87 million in 2004. Nonetheless, the report shows that 20 countries are at risk and 30 others are at serious risk of not achieving the literacy goal that aims at achieving a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015. The majority of these countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and some others in Latin America .

 

UNLD AND LIFE

 

In the coordination of UNLD, UNESCO has identified several common factor s/barriers to attaining literacy goals in the years ahead . They include gaps in policy, financial resources, human capacity, programmes, data and information. P olitical commitment of governments in developing countries to improve adult literacy levels is low and the literacy policy is often not integrat ed in national education sector plans and strategies in a coherent and systematic manner . T he budget for literacy is grossly inadequate at both national and international levels. A study in t he monitoring report shows that adult literacy programmes receive a mere 1% of the national education budget in many developing countries. Some additional financing of a minimum of US$ 2.5 billion a year up to 2015 will most likely be needed to generate significant progress towards the Dakar literacy goal.

 

The literacy personnel in many developing countries, ranging from programme designers at the central level to literacy educators and facilitators in villages, are not provided with quality training. The number literacy of workers is extremely low compared to those of formal education. In many cases, literacy programmes lack relevance and sustainability and do not address learners' needs and demands. In particular, language preferences and learners' motivation, vital for stimulating regular attendance at literacy classes, are often not addressed adequately. Moreover, literacy data and information are not always reliable and often not organized or accumulated as institutional memory that can inform policy and programme improvement. Policy a dvocacy for literacy will have to be accentuated both at national and international levels in order to mobilize increased support for literacy focus. There is the need to look at alternative approaches to address issues of education that will serve as a bridge in formal and non-formal approaches in tackling huge problems of internal efficiencies that continue to exclude the majority of children youth and adults from attaining access to quality education for meaningful development and growth.

 

With a view to refocusing the attention of development partners and governments alike in addressing the gaps identified and so change the present trends, UNESCO launched the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) on the occasion of the 33rd session of its General Conference in Paris in October 2005 after a series of consultations with national governments, NGOs, civil society associations, the private sector, UN agencies, and bilateral/multilateral development partners . LIFE is conceived as a key global strategic framework for fulfilling the aims of the UNLD and as an integral component of EFA and the MDGs. LIFE offers the opportunity for all the stakeholders and development partners to collectively revitalize and accelerate literacy efforts in countries where illiteracy poses a critical challenge. LIFE will contribute to the achievement of the EFA and MDGs, targeting those unable to access education, particularly out-of-school children as well as young people and adults with insufficient or no literacy skills. Particular focus will be placed on mothers and their children – girls and boys – living below the poverty line, especially in rural areas. Thus, it will contribute to achieving the MDGs, especially the key goal of eradicating extreme poverty.

 

The immediate objectives of LIFE are four-fold: to reinforce national and international commitment to literacy through advocacy and communication; to support the integration of policies for sustainable literacy within sector-wide approaches and national development frameworks; to strengthen national capacities for programme design, management and implementation; and to enhance countries' innovative initiatives and practices in providing literacy learning opportunities. The overall aim of the Initiative is to generate and sustain a significant boost to literacy efforts in key countries.

 

LIFE is to be implemented in 34 countries with literacy rates of 50% or less or a population of 10 million or more people who lack basic literacy competencies. The Initiative will be rolled out over a 10-year period in three phases. The first phase begins in 2006 with 10 countries including Mali , Senegal , Niger , Nigeria , Egypt , Morocco , Yemen , Bangladesh , Pakistan , and Haiti .

 

LINKS BETWEEN LIFE AND UNGEI FOR THE ATTAINMENT OF EQUITY AND PARITY

 

We do know today that literacy especially for girls and women, contributes greatly to enhanced well-being for families and communities. Education of mothers leads to better education for the next generation. Women's education has critical impact on health, infant mortality, and reduction of risks to exposure to HIV/AIDS and improvement of livelihoods.

 

With this understanding LIFE specifically aims to contribute to the empowerment of women, out-of-school girls and their families, especially in rural areas , and of those with insufficient or no literacy skills – often the poorest and most marginalized members of society. Their empowerment in turn can have a positive impact on the quality of the lives of their families , poverty reduction , socio-economic development , and school enrolment of their children . LIFE offers a framework for all the players to collectively contribute to the achievement of literacy goals, gender equity and equality in education, and sustainable development.

 

Two major challenges will be foreseen in LIFE. The first is partnership enhancement at international and regional levels to support implementation at the country level. The second is how to reduce the gaps in the critical areas to promote literacy beginning of course through the formal programmes at the level of schools which will be linked to alternative programmes for the unreached sectors of the population. Through LIFE, UNESCO encourages the countries concerned to employ inter-sectoral approaches and to involve all the potential partners, i.e. NGOs, donors, private sectors, and UN agencies in the mobilization process to accelerate the attainment of adequate literacy competencies and skills. For reducing these gaps, comprehensive technical support will be provided through our field offices, regional bureaus and institutes concerned in collaboration with the partners at national, regional and international levels.

 

The work of UNGEI should be made central to LIFE as it must be noted that the hardest nut to crack in meeting the target set for EFA and other development agenda is as a result of cultural barriers and a lack of appreciation of the value of education. Targeting improvements at the level of the school cannot take us far enough. There is the urgent need to dismantle the mind sets of the marginalized groups who do not place a high premium on education in general and of the girl child in particular. Legislation and free education are useful steps but not sufficient to provide the right responses. The one rational thing to do is to join forces as development partners to work with governments to address the problem blending both the formal and non-formal approaches while also paying close attention to relevance of the content of the curriculum in providing the knowledge and skills required for sustainable livelihood, development and growth. Focusing on women and mothers especially at the household level will ensure the vicious cycle will be broken. The literate mother with the help of the state will ensure that all her children both boys and girls alike access school, perform and complete the education cycle.

 

My plea is for partners both multi/bi-laterals, NGOs, civil society, private sectors concerned to join hands and collectively support governments to strive towards creating illiterate free societies with opportunities to enhance the capabilities of all its citizens for sustainable development with special focus on girls and women in reaching the goals of UNLD, EFA and the MDGs, through LIFE.

I thank you for your attention.