United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Statistics show slow progress towards universal literacy, and more literate women than ever before

Paris - Almost 80 percent of the world's population aged 15 years and over is now literate, including more women than ever before, according to new figures from UNESCO released to mark this year's International Literacy Day (September 8).

The new estimates and projections*, collated by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, show a steady fall in the number of illiterate adults from 22.4 percent of the world's population in 1995 to 20.3 percent in 2000. This means that the number of illiterate adults fell from an estimated 872 million in 1995 to 862 million in 2000. On current trends, the Institute estimates this should drop to 824 million, or 16.5 percent, by 2010.

Best performances came from Africa and Asia, which, despite some disparity between countries in these regions, saw the overall percentage of their illiterate populations shrink by 5.4 and 2.8 percentage points respectively.

Encouragingly, the figures also show that although women still make up two thirds of the world's adult illiterates, in all regions they are gaining access to education and literacy, and at a faster rate than men. The Institute reports that the proportion of illiterate women aged 15 and over fell from 28.5 percent to 25.8 percent.

This trend was most evident in Africa, where the percentage of illiterate women over the age of 15 fell by 6.4 percentage points to 49.2 percent. This means that for the first time, the majority of women in this part of the world are now literate. Progress was also made in South and West Asia, and the Arab States and North Africa where the percentages of illiterate women are now 56.4 and 52.2 percent respectively.

While these latest figures clearly show an increasingly literate world, they also show that progress is excruciatingly slow: one adult in five remains illiterate and meeting the goal set by the World Education Forum (Dakar, April 2000) to halve adult illiteracy by 2015 will clearly be an uphill battle: the estimates that unless an extraordinary effort is made, the percentage of illiterate adults will fall by only another five percenage points by that date.

According to the data only about 26 developing countries stand a good chance of reaching the Dakar goal, including China, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Oman, United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Another 39 countries are on track to improve their literacy rates by 40 to 50 percent, among them Algeria, Bahrain, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Namibia, Turkey, and Zambia. And a further 28 states, including Brazil, El Salvador, Lao PDR, Togo and Uganda could possibly improve their literacy rates by between 30 and 40 percent.

However, there are still more than 25 countries that, by 2015, are unlikely to achieve any more than a 30 percent improvement over their 2000 literacy rates. On this list are: Bangladesh, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iraq, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, United Arab Emirates. Without major additional efforts to fight illiteracy, these countries will account for 92 percent of the world's illiterate population in 2015.

Despite the difficulties, " we must do more and better " insists UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. " It is intolerable that around one in five of the world's adults are illiterate," says Mr Matsuura in his message for International Literacy Day. "How can we build equitable information societies or thriving democracies if so many remain without the basic tools of literacy? How can intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding prosper when the literacy divide is so great? And how can poverty be eradicated when the roots of ignorance are left undisturbed?"


* The literacy estimates and projections from UNESCO's Institute for Statistics are essentially based on data collected during national population censuses and household surveys. They provide basic information on the number and percentage of adults (15 years and older) and youth (aged 15 to 24) who are literate and illiterate. The different cultural and social contexts in the countries surveyed, along with varying definitions and standards of literacy, and different methods and frequency of collecting data mean that there is a real difficulty in international comparability and that many gaps remain in these statistics, which nonetheless provide a clear picture of the scope of the world's illiteracy problem.

Contacts: Sue Williams
Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section
Tel: (+33) (0) 1 45 68 17 06
email: s.williams@unesco.org

Leila Loupis
UNESCO Institute for Statistics
Tel: (+33) (0) 1 45 68 20 04
email: l.loupis@unesco.org

Source Press Release No.2002-55
Website 1 (URL) Website: The 2002 literacy figures (maps and graphs showing region and gender breakdowns)
Website 2 (URL) Website: Full text of the message from UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura
Publication Date 01 Sep 2002
© UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 5637