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What Is Literacy?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), defines literacy as:

"The ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."

Information About Illiteracy
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in addition to the 796 million adults who are illiterate, 67.4 million children do not attend school and even larger numbers eventually drop out or do not consistently go to class. These figures and the individuals behind them are why on 8 September every year, UNESCO asks the international community to remember the importance of and remain dedicated to literacy and education for all with International Literacy Day, with this year's theme being Literacy and Peace.

Literacy is important in many ways, not just in aiding a child's self-confidence and improving their ability to get a job, but in promoting peace, understanding and equality. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said:

"Literacy is essential to the development and health of individuals, communities and countries. It is a condition for people's effective participation in the democratic process. It is the basis for the written communication and literature that have long provided the main channel for cross-cultural awareness and understanding. And, at the same time, it is the most precious way we have of expressing, preserving and developing our cultural diversity and identity. Literacy, in short, is a prerequisite for peace."

ChildHope recognises the challenge that many children face in becoming literate and even accessing basic education. While their thirst for knowledge and learning how to read and write may be there, it can often be very difficult for children to go to school. This can be due to prohibitive costs, violence in schools, the need for them to work and contribute to their family's income, among others. But illiteracy is a fact that can leave children open to ridicule and a stigma and lack of skills that can impede their ability to get a job.
Literacy, Education and the Law
Numerous international and national legal conventions and commitments denote the importance of education, but the most notable global legislation and campaigns regarding education and literacy are:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

  • Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 to demonstrate the inherent rights that all human beings are entitled to.
  • Article 26: (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
  • Ratified by 160 countries.
  • Article 13: 1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • Ratified by 193 countries - the most widely ratified human rights instrument.
  • Article 28 goes more in depth about the right to education: 1(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates. 2. ½ ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child's human dignity½ 3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world½
Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (International Labour Organization Convention 182)
  • Ratified by 173 countries.
  • Article 8: Members shall take appropriate steps to assist one another in giving effect to the provisions of this Convention through enhanced international cooperation and/or assistance including support for social and economic development, poverty eradication programmes and universal education.
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
  • Commitment made by all 192 UN member states.
  • Goal 2 is specific to achieving universal primary education.
  • Urgency as there is a deadline to reach this goal by 2015.
Education For All (EFA)
  • Commitment made by 164 governments to achieve quality basic education for all children, youth and adults.
  • 6 goals, with goal 4 dedicated to literacy: Achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults.
  • Similar urgency as the deadline is set for 2015.
United Nations Literacy Decade
  • Launched in 2003 by UNESCO, it focuses on EFA's goal 4 and ends in 2012.
  • While not legally binding, it shows the will of the global community to challenge illiteracy rates collectively.
  • Links illiteracy with poverty by targeting the poorest and most marginalised groups.

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