The year 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day. This year’s theme, ‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’, honours the past five decades of national and international engagement, and efforts and progress made to increase literacy rates around the world. While addressing the current challenges it also looks at innovative solutions to further boost literacy.
Fifty years ago, Unesco officially proclaimed the 8th of September International Literacy Day to promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies. Interestingly, this 50th International Literacy Day coincides with the first year of implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Literacy, which is part of SDG No 4, aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. This coincidence calls for an alignment between the vision of literacy and lifelong learning opportunities with special focus on youth and adults. By those standards, all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, have to achieve literacy and numeracy by the year 2030 (SDG Target 4.6).
According to Unesco’s Pakistan Country Director Irina Bolkova the world has made great strides in terms of literacy in the past 50 years. Despite the substantial increase in world population, the number of young adults without literacy skills decreased by 25 percent between 1990 and 2015. Additionally, 43 countries have moved towards greater gender parity in education during the same period.
India and Iran recorded significant progress on the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) relating to education. Between 1990 and 2015, both countries were able to achieve universal primary education and gender parity in education.
But surprisingly, despite remarkable progress in these and other developing countries, there are still 758 million adults around the world who cannot read or write a simple sentence, of which two-thirds are women. Lack of education leaves these individuals vulnerable to other problems such as poor health, economic exploitation and human rights abuses. A good number of out-of-school children are seen swelling the ranks of various militant groups.
Pakistan is among those countries that failed to meet their MDG targets. While Pakistan was required to increase its literacy rate to 88 percent by 2015, this figure is still languishing at 58 percent, according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement.
Similarly, the net primary enrolment ratio, which measures the number of children of official primary school age who are enrolled in primary education, should have reached 100 percent at the end of 2015. Unfortunately, it has remained static at 57 percent since 2011-12. Ironically, the overall literacy rate in Fata is 33.3 percent with female literacy rate standing at 12.7 percent compared to the national literacy rate.
In terms of gender parity in education, Pakistan lags behind its neighbours and much of the rest of the world. In fact, in recent years, female literacy has surprisingly dropped throughout the country, even in Punjab – the most developed part of the country. At the national level, female literacy came down from 48 percent in 2012-13 to 47 percent in 2013-14.
According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2015, Sindh, Balochistan and Fata are the poorest performing provinces/administrative units of the country in terms of education.
According to the survey, the statistics on the quality of education also do not bode well for Pakistan. Nearly half of the students who do attend schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata, Sindh and Balochistan lack the literacy and numeracy skills required for their level. Even in Punjab and Gilgit-Baltistan, where literacy and numeracy skills are better developed, the percentage of children who can read sentences and perform mathematical operations requisite to the grade level does not exceed 70 percent.
Thankfully for countries like Pakistan, the international community’s commitment towards supporting universal education has not waned. Unesco, other UN agencies and international donors continue to invest in universal education till at least 2030, which is when the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) programme ends. The SDG agenda includes a specific goal on ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” and promoting “lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
This continued commitment towards universal quality education is based on an understanding that literacy will form the foundation for a more sustainable and prosperous future for all.
Given that much remains to be done in Pakistan in terms of education, International Literacy Day is the perfect opportunity for the Pakistani government and civil society to take stock of its successes and failures in the education sector, in addition to renewing its commitment towards universal education for all in the country.
The writer heads an independent research organisation in Islamabad.