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Nurturing the democratic debate.  
International Literacy Day: Good news in four high population countries
Editorial Contact: Sue Williams: Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section. Tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 17 06; email: s.williams@unesco.org
Cristina l’Homme, Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section. Tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 17 11 - Email

04-09-2003 5:00 pm New data released by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS) on the occasion of International Literacy Day (September 8), show improvement over the past decade in adult literacy rates for several of the world’s high population countries, including Brazil, China, Egypt and Pakistan. According to national estimates based on census data, compiled for 40 countries, China made the greatest gains, with the literacy rate of the adult population (15 years and over) climbing from 78 percent in 1990 to 91 percent in 2000. In Egypt, the rate rose from 44 percent in 1986 to 56 percent in 1996 and, according to recent reports, has risen further since. Brazil posted an increase of six percentage points from 80 percent in 1991 to 86 percent in 2000, and Pakistan, between 1994 and 1998, saw a rise from 39 to 42 percent.

These four countries, especially China, also showed improved literacy rates for women. In Brazil, the data shows that there are now slightly more literate women than men. This is also the case for Belize, Honduras, the Philippines and the Seychelles.

The Central African Republic (CAR), one of the few countries in Africa to report adult literacy rates, saw them increase from 34 percent to 49 percent in the decade to 2000. As with Egypt and Pakistan, however, there remains a gap of more than 20 percentage points between literacy rates for men and women.

Among youth, defined here as those aged between 15 and 24 years, literacy rates are – unsurprisingly - often higher than among the overall adult population. In Iran, for example, the difference between youth and adult literacy rates is 20 percentage points. In almost all 40 countries, the rate for young women grew faster than the rate for young men over the 1990s.

However, the UIS points out that, while good news, these data are still based on various types of national definitions of literacy that are beset by many limitations. As a result, renewed efforts to improve literacy measures are vital to properly inform national development policies and facilitate cross-national comparisons.

The Institute also stresses that, worldwide, one in five adults, or some 860 million people are still illiterate, two-thirds of them women. About 70 percent of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia, the Arab States and North Africa. East Asia and the Pacific report an overall literacy rate of 86 percent with a total illiterate population of 185 million. The Latin American and Caribbean Region has an illiterate population of 39 million, or 11 percent of the total adult population.

According to the Institute, unless literacy efforts are greatly accelerated, there will still be some 800 million illiterate adults in the world by 2015, the deadline set by more than 160 countries in 2000 for halving adult illiteracy rates.

“The continuing high numbers […] indicate the scale of the literacy challenge remaining,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura in a message released for International Literacy Day, 2003. “They alert us that improved rates of literacy progress need to outpace population growth and make inroads into those parts of society where illiteracy is most deeply embedded. The latter tend to be groups that are harder to reach: women, particularly among minority groups and in rural areas; linguistic and cultural minorities; the very poor of urban and rural areas; and street children and adolescents who dropped out of schools. To effectively address the literacy needs of such groups, not only innovative strategies but also proportionately more resources are required.”

Last February, the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012) was launched in a bid to give new momentum to the literacy drive and reach the 2015 goal.

For details of the data compiled by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics go to http://www.unesco.org/statistics
For the Director-General’s International Literacy Day message go to: http://www.unesco.org/dg
For information of the United Nations Literacy Decade go to http://www.unesco.org/education/litdecade

Source Press Release No 2003 - 55

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