Imagine for a moment that when you walked outside of your house, that you could not read any of the street signs or distinguish addresses on houses and buildings. Imagine you go to a restaurant, but you cannot read the menu. Or that someone hands you a bottle of medicine to use for your child who is ill, but you cannot read the instructions. You can’t read the labels on food packages or check expiry dates. You can’t read the text messages on your phone, notices sent home from your child’s school, letters you receive in the mail. You can’t read the newspaper headlines, the names of shops, or someone’s business card, let alone read books.
When we think of the prevalence of the written word in modern life, it is easy to see how profoundly disconnected one would be from their community and the rest of the world if they cannot read and write.
It is no surprise then that those countries with high rates of gender inequality are the same as those with high rates of female illiteracy. There is no more effective barrier to power and equity than illiteracy.
Literacy is a gateway to more functionality in the practicalities of life — reading a map for instance — but it is ultimately about much more: it is the single most potent path to empowerment. It is the gateway to other learning, opening a world of possibilities, a world of dreams that suddenly seem achievable. Research has shown that reading and writing is linked to improved self-esteem and confidence, more informed decision-making, improved health, increased household wealth, and increased participation in social and political life.
And literacy is also the key to freedom — freedom from the limitations that have been imposed on one’s life, dismantled one by one, one letter, one word at a time, often only mastered ever so painfully.
And because of the unique power of literacy education to contribute to the empowerment necessary to development, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has planned for a ‘world with universal literacy and numeracy’. Research and evidence show beyond any doubt that countries with more literate populations are more developed. Those who are literate are more likely to access better jobs, earn higher salaries, access better healthcare and live longer lives. Literacy is the engine of countries’ economies, the fuel of social development, and the catalysts of intellectual, literary and cultural life.
It is easy to see the correlations between literacy development looking at global data sets, but the power of literacy is just as acutely visible from an individual’s standpoint as well. There is arguably no one who knows the importance of literacy better than a once illiterate person.
Farah is a 27-year-old mother of an eight-year-old daughter. In Afghanistan, where Farah lives, she wasn’t allowed to go to school when she was a child growing up at the time the Taliban were in power and had banned girls from going to school. She was forced to marry at the age of 16 and soon became a mother when she herself had only barely finished childhood. But soon she lost her husband and had to raise her daughter as a single parent.
Farah had made a promise to herself to educate her daughter. She fulfilled that promise by sending her daughter to school. She was then inspired by her own daughter’s learning to realize her own dream of literacy, and Farah started attending a literacy class. She longed to hold a book and to know what the letters on the page meant, to read to herself and to her daughter. She wanted her daughter to not be embarrassed by an illiterate mother. And she wanted to change her destiny and her daughter’s by becoming an educated mother.
Farah joined and ultimately graduated from an adult literacy class, part of a program called Afghanistan Reads, run by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, the organization where I work. Every student walks into our classes with a story of courage and struggle trailing behind them. To ask any of our students how they got here is a humbling and eye opening experience, and a compelling reminder of the value people attribute to this all-important skill.
We must also always remember, however, that there are thousands of other people like Farah in Afghanistan still waiting for their chance to learn to read and write. Afghanistan has the lowest literacy rate in the world. Over the past 16 years, there has been a significant increase in school enrollment. Prior to 2001 only about one million children attended school, a fraction of these being female students in areas outside Taliban control. Now, nine million children are back at school. Yet still, 47% of girls of school-age are out of school (compared to 28% of boys). The earlier girls leave the school, the less likely they will ever be literate. The majority of Afghan mothers cannot read or write, affecting not only their own quality of life but that of their children and communities as well. Afghanistan simply cannot afford to not do everything in its power to eradicate illiteracy.
Every year, our organization enthusiastically celebrates International Literacy Day, which is September 8th, alongside the Ministry of Education, Afghan teachers, and other NGOs working to eradicate illiteracy in Afghanistan. This year, we are releasing a cookbook of recipes written by graduates of Afghanistan Reads in Takhar province, in north eastern Afghanistan. At this time last year, those women could not write their own names. But now, they are capable of recording local recipes from Takhar, to share them with the world. And in this way, the recipes remind us that literacy is about both practical things like writing down measurements and spelling the names of ingredients, but also about having a voice in the world. And when we look through the recipes, we know that every word represents the hours of hard work of these women to get to this level. We know, too, this is just the beginning. They have changed their destinies with literacy, and the destinies of their daughters, and the more women who join their ranks, the more Afghanistan will progress towards development and some day, equality.