Reading for love and life: why literacy is so important

By Claire Armitage, Overseas Projects Manager – October 20, 2014

Across the world, literacy rates are rising, but young women and girls still lag behind boys.  Of the 781 million adults who could not read and write in 2012, two-thirds were women.  In more than a dozen countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than half of all adults had basic literacy skills.

When Floride Njavake was 15, she witnessed her best friend lose her fiancé because she, like Njavake, was illiterate.

The fiancé moved away to study in another town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and regularly sent letters to his girlfriend.

“We used to take the letters to our friend Esther, who had been educated, so that she could read them to us. Because Esther knew that we did not know how to read, she was translating lies to us, the opposite of what the fiancé was saying,” Njavake said.

“In the end, Esther married my friend’s fiancé. This showed me that if my friend had known how to read she would not have lost her fiancé,” she added.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where only 57 percent of women aged over 15 can read and write, emerge poverty free has been working with the Bunia Children Hope Centre (BCHC) to run an adult literacy programme.

Njavake, now aged 38, eventually moved to Bunia. She was delighted to find out that there was a free literacy class near her home.

She asked her husband, a soldier, whether she could go to the class. He said yes, and she signed up.

“Having finished the course, I feel better because I can read any letter and respond to it. I am also able to read different books,” Njavake said.

Those who have taken the same classes include adults from families who have taken in orphan children under the BCHC’s fostering programme, which aims to support children left without parents because of the recurrent violence in this volatile region where numerous armies and militias prey on vulnerable populations.

Today there are around 40 students with plans to expand the course to accommodate demand from the community, where many people have missed out on formal education because of violence, poverty or displacement.

The course opens so many doors: former students can apply for better jobs, they can write letters, read street signs and medicine labels, and, of course, they feel proud of their achievements – a rare source of joy in a tough world where all too often life is characterised by violent upsets and tragedies.

Education for all is important but studies have also shown that improving women’s literacy positively affects many development indicators such as child mortality, household income, and school enrolment rates.

“Literate women are more likely to send their children, especially their girls, to school,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said.

“By acquiring literacy, women become more economically self-reliant and more actively engaged in their country’s social, political and cultural life. All evidence shows that investment in literacy for women yields high development dividends,” he said.

At emerge poverty free, we believe that empowering women is key to sustainable development. With our partners, we work to give women a sense of independence, the skills to bring their ideas to life, and the confidence to speak up. Teaching women to read and write is a critical part of that mission.

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