Championing female literacy as a way to boost GDP and reduce inequality

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Anna Robinson-Pant

Two out of every three illiterate people today are women*. Anna Robinson-Pant, Professor of Education at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education & Lifelong Learning, tells us more about the links between illiteracy and poverty, and what can be done.

Illiteracy or the vicious circle of poverty

Illiteracy is not bound by national borders, but definitely hits poor women hardest. “Young women in disadvantaged families leave school early to go to work or help their families”, says Anna Robinson-Pant. From an early age, these girls are caught between education and their family obligations. To meet the family’s needs, they leave school before they can read or write, cutting off future access to better-paying jobs and setting up a poverty-driven vicious circle, because their own children stand a good chance of dropping out for the same reasons.

Whatever the individual trajectories might be, Anna Robinson-Pant says it is important to remember that illiteracy among girls is first and foremost symptomatic of social inequality. To break the cycle, these inequalities have to be fought. “Literacy can create job opportunities for women and enable them to make their voices heard in society”, she says. Literacy also fosters economic development. Give women the same means as men to take part in the economic life of a country and that nation’s GDP will automatically go up. But this is not enough by itself, and Anna Robinson-Pant cautions that any literacy strategy has to be part of a broader commitment to fight poverty.

Improving education for women throughout their lives

So what tools are available to reduce the high rate of female illiteracy? After working in the field for 30 years, Anna Robinson-Pant is hopeful, but tempers her optimism with caution: “While the situation has changed dramatically since the 1980s, there are still millions of non-literate adult women around the world. Now more than ever, we must continue to act.”

In this setting, the United Nations has made lifelong learning a priority. This is a positive message that Anna Robinson-Pant says should help to mobilise greater resources for adult illiteracy. However, it is critical to get away from the conventional “literacy first” approach, where students are expected to start from learning literacy then later learn to apply reading and writing in other contexts. Rather, Anna Robinson-Pant suggests that we need to move towards an “embedded literacy” or “literacy second” approach designed to promote learning that is directly connected with women’s activities. “Teaching adults to read and write is pointless unless it helps them in their daily tasks. They need to learn sustainable new skills that will help them grow an activity that provides them with their livelihood”, she stresses.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are taking effective and original approaches as they seek to promote women’s empowerment. In Morocco, for example, a cooperative specialising in making argan oil has incorporated a women’s literacy programme. Representatives from the NGO, called Ibn Albaytar, spend between one and two hours a day teaching women in the cooperative how to sell their products more effectively. These conversations are also an opportunity to make the women more aware of their rights, particularly in situations such as divorce. Nirantar, another NGO, has set up a programme in rural India. The programme, which is called Khabar Lahariya, teaches women about journalism, helping them to enhance their social status and change the way they are viewed by the rest of the community. By reporting in their own dialect, they obtain a source of income, gain technical skills and promote their language.

As a result, against a shifting political backdrop, female literacy is on the rise in the Middle East, while women’s university enrolment is up in Bangladesh, for example. In Nepal, however, even though the government has encouraged families to send their girls to school, boys and girls are not always treated equally: “In rural areas boys are often sent to private schools where classes are taught in English, while girls are schooled in Nepali, which can limit their job opportunities”, explains Anna Robinson-Pant.

“Literacy is a basic women’s right”

The proactive role played by NGOs and business

Businesses and NGOs have a pivotal role to play. Large companies can provide financing and material resources, while NGOs can supply technical expertise and local knowledge. Anna Robinson-Pant adds: “Support from international groups makes it possible to achieve a global resonance that local initiatives may not manage by themselves.” Raising broader awareness through social media helps to alert public opinion and ultimately get a response from policymakers.

Prioritising women’s empowerment

The awareness is there and mentalities have changed, but a lot still remains to be done. “Women’s literacy is not just about skills, it is a basic right”, says Anna Robinson-Pant. She argues for financial resources to be more effectively allocated at the national and international level. “Understanding women’s empowerment as a GDP super-booster is step one, but governments now need to see it as a basic right and commit themselves to reducing pay inequality between men and women”, she insists, before adding: “Governments have always spent the minimum on adult literacy. The time has come to make it a priority and tackle the question in terms of social progress and effective outcomes for citizens.”

The digital revolution is shaking things up as well. Women have embraced the new methods of communication, and even those who cannot read or write can use emoticons to communicate with their loved ones. Teaching programmes may have to add a new alphabet!


* “Literacy and Education for Sustainable Development and Women’s Empowerment”, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.


CSR | March 2018