In the context of literacy’s significant benefits it is alarming that global progress on reducing illiteracy has stalled. According to UNESCO, the adult illiteracy rate has only fallen by 23% since 2000, well short of the 50% target, with most of the reduction due to better-educated children moving into adulthood rather than to more adults becoming literate. As a result, an estimated 740 million (15%) of the world’s 5 billion adults cannot read or write, including 470 million women who are almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults. The majority of illiterate women are aged over 24 years (390 million). The number of illiterate men and women has not changed in the last fifteen years.
The greatest numbers of illiterate adults are in South and West Asia while most of the countries with the highest rates of illiteracy are in sub-Saharan Africa. 15 countries now account for three-quarters of the world’s illiterate adults including India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Brazil, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Indonesia, Niger, Nepal and Cote d’Ivoire. These countries are home to an estimated 220 million illiterate men and 340 million illiterate women, with almost half in just one county – India, where the adult female literacy rate is just 65% and there is an estimated 170 million illiterate women.
In 15 countries, more than half of the adult population, and 60% of adult women, are illiterate including Niger, Guinea, South Sudan, Benin, Afghanistan, Mali, Burkina Faso, CAR, Chad, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Senegal, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone. Africa is home to 14 of the world’s 15 literacy “hotspots”, and is the region with both the highest illiteracy rate (40%) and the slowest progress. Alarmingly in several of the “hotspot” countries youth literacy is not much higher than adult literacy, and in Niger, South Sudan, Guinea and the Central African Republic more than 60% of young people (15 to 24 years) are illiterate.