Illiteracy is the world’s most important eradication goal...
and the foundation upon which sustained human progress has been built everywhere. If all adults on the planet could read and write and had opportunities to take advantage of these capabilities, economic growth, poverty, health, and political participation would all improve. Female literacy shares a particularly powerful relationship with development, especially through health improvements for children, as the more educated a mother the more likely her children are to survive and thrive. Studies have shown that half of the reduction in child deaths in recent decades is the result of increases in the education of women of reproductive age. Countries that improve female literacy at faster rates can also accelerate reductions in fertility, potentially triggering the much sought after “demographic dividend.”
Despite these benefits, global progress in reducing illiteracy has stalled. The adult illiteracy rate has fallen from 19% to 13% since 2000, or by just 32%, well short of the 50% target, according to UNESCO. As a result, an estimated 775 million (13%) of the world’s adults cannot read or write, including 468 million women who make up almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults. The greatest concentration of illiterate adults is in South Asia, but most of the countries with the highest rates of illiteracy are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Twenty countries account for 70% of the world’s illiterate adults, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Afghanistan, Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a subset of 25 “hotspot” countries, more than 40% of adult women are illiterate, including 20 in Africa - Chad, Mali, Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea, Liberia, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Senegal, Mozambique, Gambia, Nigeria, Togo, Sudan, and Comoros.
These countries should set ambitious goals to reduce adult female illiteracy to 20% by 2025 and to eradicate adult illiteracy by 2030. Countries that have already achieved 80% adult female literacy should move straight to the eradication target. Because of the powerful influence of mother literacy on child development, countries, especially those in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, should implement programs to increase both the supply of literate mothers and demand for their skills. Investments should benefit mothers in the populations where female literacy is lowest and child mortality is highest. Countries should provide special incentives for mothers to develop their literacy skills, including by linking mothers’ literacy progress to their children’s educational performance, by improving the home learning environment, and increasing labor market attachment. Conditional cash and non-cash transfers, as well as the full engagement of telecommunications technology (e.g., mobile phones) in literacy efforts targeted to mothers, can act as powerful incentives for progress.
The United Nations (UN), its agencies, and development partners should reinforce the illiteracy eradication goal under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensure that 100% of adults achieve literacy by 2030. The UN Secretary-General should establish a Special Envoy for Illiteracy Eradication and a program architecture modeled on the highly successful polio eradication effort. The UN should support the special focus on mothers’ literacy and increase integrated female literacy, health, and labor market investments in the countries where more than 40% of adult women are illiterate. The UN should also develop special indicators to measure literacy progress among mothers with dependent children and integrate these indicators into the official indicators that are measuring progress towards the SDGs.
Updated January 2024