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 14% – 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, according to UNESCO. As a result, an estimated 770 million (14%) of the world’s 5.5 billion adults cannot read or write, including 480 million women who comprise almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults. The vast majority of the 480 million illiterate women are 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, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries are home to an estimated 525 million illiterate adults – 190 million men and 335 million women. One-third of the world’s illiterate adults live in one country – India, where the adult female literacy rate is just 59% and there are an estimated 168 million illiterate women.
Of special concern are the 10 countries where more than 70% of adult women are illiterate, including Niger, Chad, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Mali, Benin, Guinea, the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Liberia, and Ethiopia. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 9 of these 10 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 Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Benin, Chad, and Mali more than 60% of young people aged 15 to 24 years are illiterate.