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Entering the 21st century nearly a billion people do not know how to read and write


By Spiros Tzelepis

A study on illiteracy today

"Knowledge is power" Bacon said many years ago, but it is strange that today, despite the great scientific and technological progress, there are people who lack the power of knowledge as they do not even know how to read or write; I am talking about illiterate people.

We could mention two categories of illiterate people:

  1. Totally illiterate: those who do not know how to read or write at all.
  2. Functional illiterate: those who have been taught writing and reading, but they have not cultivated this knowledge afterwards.

The situation around the world referring to illiteracy is the following:

Trying to investigate the reasons of illiteracy, we could come up with the following:

  1. the need of survival pushes some parents to send their children to work at an early age instead of going to school.
  2. there periods in the history of many states during which the war and riots prevented young people from being educated.
  3. lack of school facilities in poor countries
  4. the fact that in some countries education is not free and people have to pay fees, makes education a privilege for those who can afford paying
  5. some prejudices are the reason why women are not sent to school since their role is considered to be limited to household. Fifty years after education was affirmed as a right in the Declaration of Human Rights, a decade after that right was reaffirmed for all children without discrimination, in the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and nearly ten years after girls' education was identified as the most urgent priority at the World Conference on Education for all, girls around the planet cannot exercise their right to education as readily as boys.

Because of the above mentioned reasons the greatest percentage of illiterate people consists of adults -especially women-who had a hard time during their childhood.

Illiteracy is the greatest obstacle for the development of people and states:

1.Individually, illiterate people:


2.States which have a great rate of illiteracy have problems, too:

The solution to the problem lies in states investing more in education. Building schools everywhere, making education free for all and starting campaigns to stress the importance of education should be a priority in their policies.

"In the world economy, where defence expenditures total approximately $781 billion a year, the $7 billion more per year needed for education over the next decade remains an unmet challenge for the international community. By spending $7 billion more each year for the next 10 years-less than the amount people in the United States pay annually for cosmetics and Europeans for ice cream- the dream of educating all children could become a reality", Unicef stresses."And universally accessible education leads to fuller, healthier lives for children, greater social equity and stability, and higher levels of economic and social development."

"Investment in the education of girls may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world", Lawrence H. Summers -then Vice-President and Chief Economist of the World Bank-argued during a speech in 1992.

What keeps many countries from making a commitment to education is the debt burden they carry. The world's poorer nations carry an amount of $2.2 trillion of external debt according to a recent United Nations report. It would take an additional $1.9 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa and an additional $1.6 billion in South Asia each year for the next 10 years to educate all children. These regions have the highest rate of children out of school.

Another solution for adults who are already illiterate would be to motivate them to attend courses in order to obtain the basics of education. Motivation could take the form of a higher salary for example.

Education for all means the most vital element to combat poverty, to empower women, to safe-guard children from child labour and sexual exploitation, to promote democracy and human rights, to control population growth, to protect the environment. Education is the right for all people and the obligation of all governments.

"I can no longer be combared to the water buffalo on the farm "an Egyptian young woman who had just learnt to read and write told to the evaluation team. For her, learning how to read and write meant that she had obtained her "humanness".



All the statistics have been taken from UNICEF.I would like to thank Mrs Anne Sheeran, who provided me with all the information I needed.

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Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002

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