In the context of literacy’s significant benefits, it is alarming that global progress on reducing illiteracy has stalled. The adult illiteracy rate has only fallen by 26% since 2000, from 19% to 13% – well short of the 50% reduction target. Most of the recent decline is due to better-educated children moving into adulthood rather than to more adults becoming literate, according to UNESCO.
As a result, an estimated 760 million (13%) of the world’s 5.9 billion adults cannot read or write. This includes 500 million women – two-thirds of all illiterate adults – with the vast majority aged over 24 years (420 million). The number of illiterate men and women has not changed in the last fifteen years.
The greatest numbers of illiterate adults live in South Asia, but most of the countries with the highest rates of illiteracy are in Sub-Saharan Africa. 10 countries now 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.
These countries are home to an estimated 530 million illiterate adults – 196 million men and 334 million women. One-third of the world’s illiterate adults live in one country – India, where the adult female literacy rate is just 66% and there are an estimated 170 million illiterate women.Of special concern are the 15 countries where 60% or more of adult women are illiterate, including Somalia, Chad, Mali, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Niger, Guinea, South Sudan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Yemen, and Senegal. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 13 of these 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. In Somalia, Chad, Central African Republic, Niger, Mali, South Sudan, Guinea, Liberia, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, and Guinea-Bissau 60% or more of young people aged 15 to 24 years are illiterate. Rates for young girls are even higher. In Somalia, Chad, and the Central African Republic, more than seven out of every 10 young women cannot read or write.