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Why is literacy a human right?

Being able to read and write can help to reduce poverty
Being able to read and write can help to reduce poverty

If you were to list our human rights, would you include the ability to read and write? Literacy is a skill that many of us take for granted. So it may be a surprise to learn that literacy has been recognised as a human right for over 50 years in several international conventions. To celebrate International Literacy Day, we explore why literacy deserves this prized status.

Human rights enable flourishing lives, and are universal, inalienable and interrelated rights to which all human beings are entitled. When we pause to reflect on the profound effect of literacy in our everyday lives, the idea of literacy as a right - as well as an essential tool for pursuing other human rights - quickly becomes apparent. Before revealing the many benefits of literacy and why it is a human right, let us first look at what is meant by the term.

What is ‘literacy’?

There are various approaches to defining ‘literacy’. A common understanding of literacy constitutes reading and writing skills, while a broader approach can also include numeracy and other skills associated with basic education. Often international conventions will focus upon eradicating illiteracy with ignorance, and in the process implicitly promote literacy with knowledge, as found in the Beijing Declaration, for example.

Other documents delve deeper into the meaning of literacy and beyond the skills of reading and writing. For example, the Persepolis and Hamburg Declarations say that literacy can include “access to scientific and technical knowledge, to legal information, to means of enjoying the benefits of culture and to the use of media.”

Boy on computer in libraryUnderpinning all of these approaches is the interpretation of literacy as a foundational and universal life skill, with the potential to meet an individual’s vital needs and stimulate their participation in community life. While a literate community is dynamic, exchanges ideas and engages in debate, an illiterate community faces obstacles to achieving a good quality of life and can even experience the spread of exclusion and violence.

When someone is illiterate, their lifelong learning is stunted and they are unable to engage in continual education. Illiteracy can also mean an inability to use communication technologies, such as the internet and text-messaging. In increasingly knowledge-based societies, this is an ever important skill and provides access to resources for a decent standard of living.

Considering the positive impacts of literacy we can begin to see why literacy ought to be approached as a right. As the Hamburg Declaration states: “Literacy, broadly conceived as the basic knowledge and skills needed by all in a rapidly changing world, is a fundamental human right.”

Benefits of literacy

Literacy can be imagined as a tool that empowers and enriches the well-being of individuals, families, communities and nations. The set of benefits associated with literacy provides the rationale for recognising literacy as a right. UNESCO identifies a multitude of interrelated benefits of literacy, which can be categorised into human, political, cultural, social and economic benefits.

Smiling girl writing at schoolThe human benefits of literacy are those that are intrinsically valuable, as well as instrumental in realising other benefits. “I have more confidence”, is a typical statement after completing a literacy training programme. In this instance, the participant was from the Philippines. Many studies have found a positive impact of literacy on self-esteem, including reports from Brazil, India, Nigeria, the United States and several African and South Asian countries.

Literacy empowers learners to have more control over their lives and to take individual or collective action in the household, the workplace or in the community. The empowerment effect of literacy is especially potent for women - who make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population. An insightful study in Namibia found that learners in a literacy training programme wished to be able to write letters, deal with money and understand English so that they could be self-reliant and have control over everyday life situations, such as being able to ‘keep secrets’ and ‘not be cheated’.

Being literate also endows political benefits and skills, which foster the development of thriving societies. The close connection between education and political participation is well established, and extends to participation in trade unions and local and national politics. Those with an education are more likely to vote and voice more tolerant attitudes and democratic values.

For instance, women who took part in literacy programmes in Turkey participated more in community organisations and voted more than did illiterate women. Similarly, literate women in Nigeria reported being confident enough to participate in community meetings, unlike illiterate women. It has also suggested, although not consistently proven, that literacy is beneficial to democracy, ethnic equality and in post-conflict situations.

Smiling Muslim girl with Arabic tabletThe cultural benefits that literacy brings with it are harder to identify and measure than benefits in terms of political participation. However, it is likely that adult literacy programmes can be central in preserving and promoting cultural openness and diversity. This may be done by making use of minority languages so that people can participate in their own culture. It is interesting to imagine how literacy may change a culture, and potentially transform attitudes, behavioural patterns, norms and values. However evidence for this kind of cultural transformation arising from literacy programmes is limited.

Where there is support for literacy changing cultural norms, it is often connected to shifts in gender relations after women have learnt to read and write. In Pakistan when women in two different rural communities gained access to reading and writing in Urdu (the national language) and in English, a new norm of privacy developed that had previously not existed. These newly literate women were able to spend their leisure time reading news, romantic fiction and magazines and writing in diaries. In these cases, reading and writing allowed women to create a private space for imagination, reflection and emotional expression. Literacy opened up a space in which they could begin to question, challenge, resist and renegotiate values and their own roles.

Perhaps some of the most powerful benefits of literacy are the social benefits, which includes the effects on health, education, and gender equality. Infant mortality was significantly lower among Nicaraguan mothers who had participated in an adult literacy campaign compared to those who had not. Bolivian mothers who attended literacy and basic education programmes were more likely to seek medical help for themselves and their sick children, and adopt preventative health measures such as immunisation and family planning methods. More broadly, there is a strong evidence that education (especially that of females) reduces fertility rates.

A mother and her child

Literacy is inextricably linked to education, and enables independent and lifelong learning. Furthermore, parents who are educated, whether through schooling or adult literacy programmes, are more likely to send their children to school and more able to help their children during their schooling.

As already touched upon, the acquisition of literacy skills can help to address women’s inequality in a society. Newly literate women are more able to enter traditionally male-domains, increasing their employment opportunities and ability to manage household finances. Read the story of 38-year old Selena in Zimbabwe, who after gaining literacy skills from a SOS Children's study group, has successfully started her own greengrocers business.

Detailed case studies have shown that literacy skills can have varying impacts on different areas of a woman’s life. For example, while a literate woman may be able to decide to send her daughter to school, she may not feel able to assert herself regarding family planning or implementing changes in the household. In societies that disadvantage girls in their pursuit of education, locally held norms and patriarchal values are unlikely to be overcome via literacy programmes alone. On a positive note, there are many literacy programmes that have led to social mobilisation, when they incorporate the tackling of gender issues at the community level.

Economic benefits
are the final set of benefits of literacy that we will look at. The economic returns of education, in terms of increased individual income and economic growth, has been extensively researched. A study that disentangled the effects of literacy from that of education, found that the difference in average literacy skills among OECD countries explains 55% of the differences in economic growth over 1960-94. Therefore, investing in literacy programmes yields large economic returns. The mechanisms between literacy and economic growth are not fully understood. However, we can observe that economic efficiency today relies in part upon skilled labour and an understanding of new technology. As people can access knowledge, they are more likely to experience economic gains.School girls

On a human, political, cultural, social and economic basis, literacy skills support an individual’s livelihood and feeds into a society’s development and growth.

Literacy as freedom

“Literacy is not an end in itself. It is a fundamental human right,” states The Persepolis Declaration. It is a right that is currently denied to nearly a fifth of the world’s adult population. Besides being a human right, literacy is a foundation for achieving universal education and reaching the overarching goal of reducing human poverty. It is essential for the expansion of an individual's capabilities, and is crucial for economic and social well-being for adults - as well as their children.

‘Literacy as Freedom’ was the slogan for the United Nations Literacy Decade when it was launched in 2003. We have seen why literacy is a human right to be actively promoted and defended, and why it is a cornerstone of freedom. SOS Children is helping children to access the many freedoms that literacy brings via 222 nurseries and 182 primary and secondary schools across the world. That's 404 educational programmes globally for 130,500 children!

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Schools and nurseries graphic