Youths and women key to upping Africa’s literacy rate

Youths and women key to upping Africa’s literacy rate

Africa’s 2013 literacy rates vary widely, from 90.7% and 87% in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea respectively, the continent’s best rates, to 21.8% 25.7% in Burkina Faso and Chad respectively, the continent’s worst. Addressing Africa’s literacy gap therefore requires varied, country- or region-specific approaches. In some nations political turmoil undermines any efforts and so the starting point to improving the literacy rate is peace and stability, but in others addressing the marginalisation of women, focusing on youths, and improving the education system as well as educational infrastructure are the most pivotal.

The focus on literacy – and the reason for the United Nations’ International Literacy Day – is that basic literacy skills are critical to various other socioeconomic development factors; being literate means you are equipped to seek further education opportunities, better placed to find employment, better able to manage your health and that of your family, more likely to encourage your children to stay in school, and more likely to become an active citizen. UNESCO rightly argues that “Illiteracy is a condition that denies people opportunity”. Africa desperately needs to capitalise on the myriad possibilities that are in front of her at this point in history, and literacy is a prerequisite for doing so.

Focus in on the youth

Africa has more people under the age of 20 than anywhere else in the world. Youths also make up a disproportionately large portion of the continent’s population; 200 million of our 1.1 billion are between the ages of 15 and 24 (the so-called youth bracket). Sub-Saharan Africa’s youth literacy rate is 72%, the lowest of any region in the world.

Developing the literacy skills of the youth is vital to upping the overall average. Helping to educate this population bracket is key to moving Africa past its beleaguered past into a more prosperous future, as youths are the leaders and businesspeople of tomorrow.

A major hindrance to improving literacy is the absence of books in rural areas. While the internet and mobile phones can help in this regard, they have limited reach, particularly in the poorer, rural regions illiteracy is the most rampant.

Programmes such as the UN’s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE), which is working in 18 African nations, are making noticeable inroads in literacy rates. Key to LIFE’s success to date is its partnering with various other stakeholders, primarily governments, NGOs, the private sector and development partners, as it takes all these parties to bring about real and sustained improvement.

Typically, many African governments spend little percentage of their education budgets addressing the issue of illiteracy, which is problematic as illiteracy leaves kids and adults ill-equipped for the various challenges they will face throughout life. Literacy should be the foundation for any educational framework, since a foundation needs to be strong if the structure built on top of it is to stand.

Focus in on women

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation,” said Brigham Young, referring doubtless to the greater community-mindedness of women. In other words, when you teach women literacy skills you ensure a greater spread or reproduction of those skills.

At present 7 in 10 African men can read, while only 5 in 10 women can. The factors responsible for this discrepancy include religion, patriarchy and poverty (if a family can only afford to educate some of children, the boys usually receive preference over girls). Women are therefore in need of specialised focus.

For grown women (as well as grown men, for that matter), improvements in the schooling system are not the answer – non-formal methods of teaching literacy need to be fostered and supported. This means government, the private sector, churches, NGOs and so forth need to develop innovative and context-specific programmes that bring literacy opportunities to women, where they are.

Africa is the only continent where less than 50% of parents are able to help their children with homework. Since it is mothers who most often engage with their children’s education, the improvement in women’s education will mean improvement in children’s education too.

Women are also key to improving health. More literate women mean children will receive better medical care; there should no longer be any incidents where children die because their mothers are unable to read instructions on medicines. When African women are better educated on healthcare and sanitation then whole communities will be transformed.

The propagation of gender equality is key to improving women’s literacy rate. This once again requires a multilateral effort from governments (fair policies need to be put in place and emphasis placed on educating women), the private sector (it needs to invest in women and offer equitable employment opportunities), NGOS and civil society.

At present Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest regional literacy rate in the world: 63%. It is critical that all stakeholders engage in the literacy issue so that the economic boom does not merely the benefit the literate portion of society, but rather positively impacts the entire population.

“When it comes to education and literacy, gender inequality needs to be stamped out, and urgently too. Every child, whether boy or girl should have same access to basic education. They all have the potential to contribute and build not just corporate firms but also become leaders in our communities. There are instances where some might not be able to afford fees for universities but at least, let us ensure they have good basic education; technical colleges can also help in equipping those who can’t go to universities to acquire needed skills in developing their own SMEs in Agriculture, finance or whatever sector they might desire. The key success route here is to ensure every child is given the opportunity to access basic education, no matter their gender.”- Yunus Suleman

David Okwara

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