BY AMAKA ABAYOMI & EBELE ORAKPO

EVER heard the saying that Illiteracy is a disease? Perhaps, that informed the setting aside of September 8 every year as the International Literacy Day by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO; an agency of the United Nations whose purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture.

It is a day set aside by UNESCO to raise global awareness and concern for literacy problems within communities.  So come Saturday, September 8, Nigeria will join the rest of the world to mark the 2012 edition of the International Literacy Day which was first celebrated in 1966 after its proclamation on  November 17, 1965.

According to UNESCO, literacy is a human right because it is a tool of personal empowerment and a means of social and human development. Also, because educational opportunities depend on literacy, literacy is at the heart of basic education for all (EFA) and is essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy.

As the world celebrates International Literacy Day 2012, it is pertinent to note that though the international community has pledged to improve adult literacy levels by 50 per cent between 2000 and 2015, about 800 million adults – 64 per cent of whom are women – still lack basic reading and writing skills.

Themed: Literacy and Peace, the 2012 International Literacy Day is aimed at showing how literacy contributes to peace by bringing people closer to attaining individual freedom and better understanding the world, as well as preventing or resolving conflicts. The connection between literacy and peace is that it is harder to establish or sustain a literate environment in unstable democracies or conflict-affected countries.

Activities lined up to celebrate the day include high-level international round table on literacy – Reaching the 2015 Literacy Target: Delivering on the Promise, and the 2012 UNESCO literacy prize winners’ ceremony.

There is no denying the fact that quality basic education equips people with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to send their children to school; literate people are better able to access continuing educational opportunities; and literate societies are better geared to meet pressing development, according to UNESCO.

But despite numerous efforts, global literacy rate looks alarmingly low. According to UN analysis, one in five adults (800 million) is illiterate; 75 million children don’t attend school and many more attend irregularly or are drop outs. In Nigeria, the literacy rate of males between 15-24 years is 78 per cent, while that of females within the same age bracket is 65 per cent.

Speaking in Abuja at a meeting of Education ministers and senior officials from nine highly populated developing countries (E9 countries) of Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan, Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Prof. Ruqquayatu Rufa’i said E9 countries were still short of their targets years after committing resources to achieve universal literacy by 2015.

“In spite of accelerated impetus to achieve Education for All (EFA) goals by 2015, we still lag behind. One goal is to reduce illiteracy by 50 per cent,” she said.

At least, two in every three illiterate adults or young persons reside in an E9 country, which account for 535 million illiterate people out of the estimated 800 million considered illiterate globally.

EFA’s six goals that countries should target against the 2015 deadline are: expand early childhood care and education; provide free and compulsory education for all; learning and life skills for young people and adults; increase adult literacy by 50 per cent; achieve gender equality in education; and improve quality of education.

With nearly 3.5 billion inhabitants in 2005 – more than half of the world population, E9 countries represent tremendous challenges that weigh heavily on global education trends as most of them are yet to achieve universal primary education and all face major quality deficits.

Of the world’s 800 million adults who lack the basic learning tools to make informed decisions and participate fully in the development of their societies, nearly 70 per cent live in E9 countries.

Tackling the literacy gap is both a moral and development imperative for E9 governments and donor countries. It requires strengthening efforts to expand education and to significantly improve its quality.

This, Rufa’i agrees with, as she pointed out that for E9 countries to achieve the level of literacy required, there is need to reach out further to those living in remote and rural areas and very difficult terrains, women, youth and the marginalised.

Bringing it closer home, she said one of the programmes through which Nigeria can up her literacy rates is being implemented in collaboration with UNESCO through a self-benefiting Funds-in-Trust valued at over N1bn.

“We are now in a better position to address the challenge of illiteracy with a renewed commitment and a sense of urgency and we expect that the programme will yield remarkable outcomes before 2015,” she enthused.

Though some considerable successes have been recorded since efforts were first made in 1944 to address the issues of illiteracy in the country, but the challenges are quite daunting. Nigeria, presently, has over 50 million illiterate citizens which, to a large extent, has impacted negatively on all facets of national development and has led to civil unrest in some parts of the country.

As it stands, Nigeria might still miss the 2015 target date of reducing its illiteracy rate by 50 per cent under the EFA declaration made in Jomtien, Thailand in March 1990.

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