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Why are two out of three illiterate people female?

Bringing literacy to girls can change whole societies
Bringing literacy to girls can change whole societies

In the first of our International Literacy Day pieces, we take a detailed look at the impact of illiteracy on girls and investigate how change can be achieved…

When it comes to literacy, girls and women fare far worse than men. Of the roughly 776 million people around the world who cannot read and write, two thirds are female. Girls face particular challenges on the road to achieving literacy, from discrimination and social stigma, to caregiving duties and household responsibilities. Often, girls who should be in school are forced to take on childcare or expected to look after sick relatives. In many parts of the world, an education is simply not considered part of a woman’s lot in life, or has value only as far as it boosts marriageability.

The reasons why girls are cut off from education in many parts of the world are myriad. But the statistics speak for themselves. In India, for example, only one girl in three will finish primary school. Most drop out of school to help with housework, or to get a job and earn a living. Many parents prefer to invest in the education of their sons due to strong social norms. As in many parts of the developing world, marriage often takes place at an early age for Indian girls, and education is replaced by the responsibilities of motherhood.

Alida is only fourteen, but already the need to provide care for sick relatives has disrupted her secondary education. Three years ago, her father left her alone with her bedridden mother and two younger sisters, taking the family’s few assets with him. At 11, Alida became head of the household, spending her days tending the garden to produce food for her family. Eventually, she moved in with her grandfather, and for a while, it looked like she might be able to return to school. Soon after, though, he died, leaving Alida to care not only for her mother and sisters, but her elderly grandmother as well. Three years on, she works as a maid in a wealthier household. The money Alida sends home is her family’s only means of survival.

Why girls?

The story of why girls are so often excluded from education is a complex one. It goes right to the heart of many societies, buried deep in cultural norms that have evolved over generations.

In many regions, women occupy a position of economic dependency. In such patriarchal societies, men determine the course of a woman’s life, and men have the final say in every decision they are faced with. Leila, from Azerbaijan, has spent most of her life obeying the dictates of men, from her father at home, to the man she married in her late teens. Though she enrolled at school, her father would not let her go to classes. He decided that it would be more appropriate for Leila to stay at home, learning how to maintain a household and raise a family.

In marriage, she fared even worse. As in many Azerbaijani families, Leila’s husband forbade her from ever leaving the house, and she spent the majority of her waking life at home; cleaning, cooking, washing, and looking after the livestock.

Harder for girlsLeila is an exception: her story has a happy ending. SOS Children was able to step in when her husband’s behaviour began to affect the wellbeing of her children, providing support so that they could attend school and escape their mother’s fate. But for many girls and women, there is no such relief. And Leila’s upbringing means that she will always struggle to read and write.

Where patriarchal structures dominate, cultural attitudes are often too deeply ingrained even for legislation to provide an answer. The government of Azerbaijan has attempted to improve the status of women through free education, equal rights reform and active encouragement of female leadership. Such steps may be effective in the city, but in rural communities such as Leila’s, it is very difficult to prevent age-old prejudices prevailing.

A family affair

Solutions have to be delivered at a local, grassroots level. Improving educational opportunities for girls and women begins with the family, because it is this fundamental unit that ultimately decides an individual’s path in life. Social norms and customs permeate the family structure, creating a framework that guides, influences and determines conduct. In most societies, domestic labour is divided along gendered lines, with women taking on caregiving responsibilities, and men going out to work. And in many cultures, the distribution of power within the family is weighted squarely in favour of men

In some patriarchal cultures, early marriage is the only way of securing daughters’ future prosperity in a society where paid employment for women is rare. In Ethiopia and other countries in West Africa, girls marry at a staggeringly young age – often as early as 7 or 8 years old. Even if a young bride is permitted to continue with her schooling, educational progress is inevitably disrupted, particularly when she reaches childbearing age. As in Azerbaijan, policy has largely failed to curb such long-standing traditions. In Ethiopia, the law prohibits marriage before the age of 18. Nevertheless, young girls routinely fall victim to “kidnappers” who abduct them as brides for their sons on their way to school. This phenomenon alone has resulted in parents forbidding their daughters from attending.

Girls 61% illiterate youthGirls are often singled out for child labour or to help at home because cultural norms favour the educational development of boys. Girls are not actively denied an education, but other activities are prioritised. Child labour usually happens at the family level. Girls are kept home to work on the family farm. In a small minority of cases, girls engage in part-time labour and attend school when they can be spared. Generally, they simply do not get the opportunity to attend school. In either case, school attainment is affected. Irregular attendance and commitments outside school affect girls’ ability to apply themselves to their studies, resulting in poorer performance and often drop-out. In some countries, girls are forced to abandon their education in order to carry out domestic duties specifically prescribed to females. In Swaziland, for instance, most of the children who drop out of school are girls needed at home to care for sick relatives. Where debilitating diseases such as HIV/AIDS are chronic, girls will regularly care for sick parents and other family members.

The path to development

Real development enables families to survive without the need for child labour, and results in better outcomes for girls. As the majority of child labourers are girls, female literacy increases and better education correlates strongly with higher incomes. Evidence suggests that with increased earning power comes a greater input into household decision-making.

This is great news for girls. And children – both boys and girls – study more when mothers have a greater say in household decisions, because women place a greater value on their children’s development and education. This gives families a greater chance of breaking out of a cycle of poverty. Overall, a host of benefits follows from a more forceful maternal presence in the household. In 2010, Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, said: “It improves livelihoods, leads to better child and maternal health, and favours girls’ access to education.” It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

As ever, there are caveats attached to the benefits. Education for women is not universally a force for practical good. In some parts of Africa, a good education makes a girl a better marriage prospect under the practice of “bride price” (known locally as lobola). In these cultures, education itself becomes just another part of the patriarchal jigsaw. When managed from the bottom up, however, education is an immensely powerful tool in enabling successive generations of girls to succeed and prosper.

In Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, women have been able to start their own businesses thanks to guidance and financial support offered as part of SOS Children’s community development work. 38-year-old Selena became moderately successful running a greengrocer’s stall from outside her home. Though she was possessed of the entrepreneur’s knack and desperate to expand her business, Selena was simply unable to take her trade to the next level because she was illiterate and couldn't balance her books. Through adult learning, we taught Selena to read and write so she could build a successful business. However, most women don’t benefit from the support offered by charities like SOS Children.

Tip of the iceberg

Families do not invent power relationships, but they do embody and instil broader social norms. Consequently, it becomes very difficult for girls to escape the role they are allotted as it is a mould they are raised to fit from the moment they leave the womb. Deep, structural change is needed to ensure more girls have access to quality education throughout their childhood.

School girlsIn 2010, Ban Ki-Moon spoke passionately on why female literacy is essential to bringing prosperity not only to girls but to whole communities: “Literate women are more likely to send their children, especially their girls, to school. By acquiring literacy, women become more economically self-reliant and more actively engaged in their country’s social, political and cultural life.”

Since the millennium, we have come a long way in addressing the problem of illiteracy in the developing world. But so far, we have only touched the tip of the iceberg. Girls form part of a large group of marginalised and disadvantaged children who are much harder to reach. But in many ways, they are the key to success in the developing world. The real challenge in the coming years will be the quest to bring literacy to a sector of society who have the power to bring real and lasting change to our whole society.

Inspired to make a difference? Find out how you can help by sponsoring a child with SOS Children.