Worldwide: more girls are illiterate than boys (and why this sucks)

Women’s education has been linked with a faster, more efficient way of getting people out of the poverty cycle. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has said that their latest report brings examples from across the globe, including Ethiopia, Pakistan, Nicaragua and Vietnam, showing that female education is vital for lifting families out of poverty as well as for stopping them falling back into it.

“Girls are far less likely to go to school in the first place,” suggests UNESCO’s Manos Antoninis. “Of all school children, 55% of girls are never expected to go to school, compared to only 41% of boys.”

“In addition, as a result of poor education over the years, one in four young people in low and lower-middle income countries cannot read. In the case of South and West Asia, two-thirds of these young illiterates are female.”

Poverty has a range of negative impacts on adults and children which can in turn limit educations and employment opportunities. “Without access to education or employment, the chances that people will be stuck in poverty are much higher,” says Dr Cassandra Goldie from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).

“Literacy and numeracy are foundational skills,” says Goldie, “without which people can be locked out of employment and other opportunities.”

The story is the same across the globe. Whereas some might imagine the problem to be less prevalent in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, experts are highlighting that the battle against poor education (or no access to education at all) is far from won.

“Despite 20 years of strong economic growth that has made most Australians better off, 12.8% of Australians and 17.3% of children were living below the poverty line,” as late as the last report in 2010, says Goldie. The impacts of poverty on education, and literacy in particular, are well-noted.

“Education empowers girls and women to overcome the discrimination they face, for example by giving them the confidence to prevent early marriage and early pregnancy,” says Antoninis, “or the knowledge to make decisions affecting their own lives and the lives of their children.”

While governments tend to lag, often it is community groups that are stepping in to resolve the problem, even if on a small, ‘local rather than global’ scale.

Numerous reports over the years from key ACOSS members, such as the Benevolent Society, The Smith Family and others, have pointed to the importance of education and literacy, and early intervention programs in steering children and young adults from disadvantaged families into brighter futures.

“These frontline organizations have consistently reported examples of individuals and families improving their conditions by access to study, education and literacy,” claims Goldie.

Several OECD countries have put literacy intervention programs in place at a national level, including the USA’s Adolescent Literacy Intervention Program which highlights teachers as being one of the essential elements to the program’s success.

“Professional development and support are also crucial components of literary instruction,” the program’s review guide states. “If teachers do not have the appropriate pedagogical content knowledge they will be less likely to make adjustments when necessary, or to support student learning.”

“I have been working in the area of early childhood since 1983,” says Australian teacher, Rhonda Wilson, “and have noticed a myriad of changes in policies and procedures. With the changes which are happening Australia-wide there are more expectations placed on the children at schools, in care, or even by society in general.”

“Education makes people more productive,” explains Antoninis, “which brings higher income for wage workers, more profits for microenterprise owners, and better harvests for farmers. Donors are turning away from education in the tight economic climate, but should be doing the reverse.”

Sadly, UNESCO says that the world is not on track to reach gender parity by 2015; there is still a long way to go before literacy and education meet the standards the organization would like.

“We project that 70% of countries will have achieved parity in primary education by next year. But far fewer low and lower middle income countries will have achieved parity.”

In its most broad sense, literacy has the power to transform lives. “It empowers people to access the justice system to claim their rights, or to have a say in community meetings from which they could be excluded,” says Antoninis.

“It empowers people all over the world to stand up to corruption and to make them strong but critical supporters of democracy.”


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