September 8, International Literacy Day

"His mother, Catherine, looked over his shoulder. She looked at the double rectangle under the lamp, the regular trace of the lines; she also breathed the smell and she sometimes turned the pages with her fingers, creased from washing, as if trying to know better what a book was, to get nearer those mysterious signs, incomprehensible for her, but where her son found frequently and during many hours, a life unknown to her and from which he came back looking at her as if she were a stranger".

Albert Camus, The First Man


As in the case of the mother of the philosopher Albert Camus, many men and women today cannot understand a book and consequently are not able to know the meaning and knowledge that are in those pages. For them, they are only mysterious signs, closed doors that prevent them from such basic things as knowing their own rights, their past or how to develop their potential in order to have a voice in their society.

In Entreculturas, we consider this situation intolerable since it prevents the right to education that all human beings have. This is why we want to show with this report the almost 800 million illiterate adults world wide according to UNESCO.

In the beginning of the 21st century, access to universal education is still a pending task which affects the well being of entire regions throughout the planet. It is true that illiteracy should not be the only fundamental right, but it is one of the most essential ones, without which the others have little value. Thus, it should be a priority for all of us who think and defend that another world is possible.

The numbers of illiteracy over 15 years old have not varied significantly over the last 50 years. Neither has the fact that the immense majority of illiterate people live in poor countries, whose population survives, in the majority of cases, with less than 1 dollar per day. Illiteracy and poverty walk hand in hand. Regarding gender, statistics show that for every 100 literate men, we only find 88 women who can read and write. In some countries, this difference is still wider. For example, out of the 68 million illiterate people in the Arab states, 43 million are women.

Literacy is essential so that the human being may develop all of its potential. It must be understood as "the door" by which human beings can reach a universe of knowledge. And this door should remain open for a life time. This is why one should ask, being adult literacy so necessary, why it seems like an impossible dream to achieve and why illiteracy has ceased to worry some governments and international development agencies. It is true, that in spite of financial difficulties, a considerable number of governments have increased their concern for adult literacy. Some of the poorest countries include in their budgets specific amounts for adult literacy. This is the case of Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Ghana, Nicaragua, Honduras, Rwanda... Others, with the support of international cooperation, are making significant changes in order to priorize adult literacy. But still, these efforts are not enough.

Which would be the reasons for the scarce attention paid to adult literacy? In the first place, the supposed lack of profit. Although the estimated cost of a good literacy programme is between 50 and 100 dollars per person, which is considerably low taking into account the positive benefits it generates, today, many maintain that adult literacy would be expensive and doubtfully efficient. Another argument frequently used is the supposed incapacity of adults to learn and to begin the individual and social changes that come with literacy.

A democratic society needs literate people to actively participate in its development and consolidation. Without a society that is organized, conscious and demanding its rights, it is impossible to develop adequate public policies to benefit the population and strengthen a State of Justice. The higher the level of literacy in a society is, the higher are the benefits in the political, economic and social areas or in public welfare. Therefore, to help with access to education is a collective and immediate responsibility.

This is why Entreculturas has published the report "Literacy, the door to knowledge", in order to inform and help us raise awareness on the literacy issue. Why does the problem persist? Who does it affect and in what degree? Why does it concern all of us? What are the authorities doing about it and what can we do? The report tries to reply to all of these and many other questions.

How education changed their lives

PERUSI NYIRAMATUNGO, 48 years old. (Rwanda refugee woman)

"I felt underestimated and I wanted to learn how to read and write in order to progress. My parents did not take me to school and later my circumstances did not allow me. Here in the country I made up my mind since I did not have many occupations and I had time. Then I learnt to read and write, I can read the letters I get from my children and my friends. My children and my friends write a letter to me and I know how to look at the paper and understand. I receive it and I can read it by myself. I can get the Bible and read God's word before the Assembly. I know what God's word means and I can explain it. Here in the country, I have also learnt some French and I can say good morning, good afternoon, thank you, good bye, I know how to cook and some sewing..."

SEGACA NYABUDENGE, 63 years old (Rwanda refugee man)

"I learnt to read when I was 61. I saw other elderly people who went to church, who read the Bible, who read their children's letters, who helped with the children's homework and I thought: I have to do it; I have to learn how to help my grandchildren with their homework. Before, I did not dare talk because I felt ignorant. Now I have the freedom to talk in front of the Assembly and make myself be heard. I know how to read and write and I feel proud."

CHEFA, a woman of one of Peru's Fe y Alegria's Literacy programme

"I was born in Lower Piura, I am 68 years old and I had a very sad childhood. I never knew what playing was about. We said to each other, it must be like this and we have to put up with it. We were very thin and very dark. I still have the colour after so much sun. We never went to school and we never thought of our parents sending us to school. It must be like this, I said. For me it was normal. We had no other way out, because since we didn't understand, we didn't know.

After all that darkness, that wickedness, change came. I learnt that life was not like that. And I started to learn. I was very happy. Because I learnt A and B and then I joined the syllables. Then I wrote my name and I spelt, letter after letter. I could join a word, what happiness! That was my birth, a very very nice birth, because I learnt how to read and how to communicate with people and now I have made progress and I know many things. I have been a mid wife, I have saved children's lives. Now I am very rich compared to what I was when I was a little girl. Now I am. I am proud of what I know. A light!"