Today is the United Nation’s International Literacy Day and the world body says it gives an opportunity for governments, civil society and stakeholders to highlight improvements in world literacy rates, and reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges.
The issue of literacy is a key component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs adopted by world leaders in September 2015, promotes, as part of its agenda, universal access to quality education and learning opportunities throughout people’s lives. Sustainable Development Goal 4 has as one of its targets ensuring all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them, the UN says.
This year’s theme is ‘Literacy and skills development.’ Despite progress made, literacy challenges persist, and at the same time the demands for skills required for work, evolve rapidly. This year’s theme explores integrated approaches that simultaneously support the development of literacy and skills, to ultimately improve people’s lives and work and contribute to equitable and sustainable societies. The day focuses on skills and competencies required for employment, careers, and livelihoods, particularly technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills, the UN says.
September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) at the 14th session of UNESCO’s General Conference on October 26, 1966 to remind the international community of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and societies, and the need for intensified efforts towards more literate societies.
The idea of an International Literacy Day was proposed at the World Conference of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy. This was held at Teheran in Iran from September 8-19 in 1965. The conference in its final report said, “the development of the modern world, the accession to independence of a large number of countries, the need for the real emancipation of people and for the increasingly-active and productive participation, in the economic, social and political life of human society, of the hundreds of millions of illiterate adults still existing in the world, make it essential to change national education policies. Education systems must provide for the educational training needs of both the young generations who have not yet begun working life, and the generations that have already become adult without having had the benefit of the essential minimum of elementary education.National educational plans should include schooling for children and literacy training for adults as parallel elements.”
Just as knowledge, skills and competencies evolve in the digital world, so does what it means to be literate. To bridge the literacy skills gap and reduce inequalities, last year’s International Literacy Day highlighted the challenges and opportunities in promoting literacy in the digital world, a world where, despite progress, at least 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children still lack basic literacy skills.
According to UNICEF, there has been little progress in improving access to education to children in the poorer regions, notably in South Asia, West Asia (Middle East) and sub-Saharan Africa where there are still 123 million school-age children without schools.UNESCO reports more than 75% of the world’s 781 million illiterate adults are found in South Asia, West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa. Women represent almost two-thirds of all illiterate adults globally.
Though South Asia is among the areas demarcated as having the highest illiteracy rates, two South Asian countries stand out having exceptionally-high literacy rates worldwide. The Maldives has a literacy rate of 99% and Sri Lanka 92%. Yet at the time Sri Lanka received independence from Britain in 1946, the literacy rate in the country stood at a mere 57.8%, with female literacy being 43.8% and male literacy 70.1%. C.W.W. Kannangara’s pre-education policy is widely acclaimed as being the main reason for this.
Sri Lanka’s coalition government has almost doubled the allocation for education and introduced a policy, where every student will have at least thirteen years of education. Even those who fail at the GCE Ordinary Level examination will be able to continue to a higher level where they will have access to a multitude of vocational training skills including high technology and digital training. Education will be largely job-oriented with the government assuring about one million new and productive jobs before 2020.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who died recently, has said “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” We hope Sri Lanka’s new education policy will produce more skilled citizens, but also eco-friendly and responsible citizens who work for the common good of all instead of just personal gain, glory or other selfish ambitions.