The Steady Rise of Female Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa

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SEATTLE, Washington — Among the sterling achievements in the struggle against global poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is the progress of female literacy. Due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to reaffirm the global commitment to ensuring every child has access to education while acknowledging the marked improvements which have already been made. The increase in female literacy in sub-Saharan Africa is such an example.

Advocating for Girls’ Education

The capacity of developing nations to provide girls and women with access to education remains vital to nations’ economic and political well-being. Abigail Adams, former First Lady and matron of America’s Founding, once remarked, “If we mean to have Heroes, Statesmen, and Philosophers, we should have learned women.” Adams’s words continue to echo loudly today, even two centuries later.

The World Bank defines literacy as the ability to “read and write with understanding a short simple statement about their everyday life.” Female literacy in sub-Saharan Africa has increased steadily for five decades.

Among the 48 nations which constitute sub-Saharan Africa, where 1.107 billion people reside, meaningful gains have been made in nearly every nation. In 2000, the literacy rate of adult females in sub-Saharan Africa was 46.8%; as of 2019, it was 58.8%. Perhaps a more illustrative statistic than the overall literacy rate of adult females, however, is the youth female literacy rate.

School Enrollment: The Driving Force of Literacy

Because such a sizeable portion of the female population is too old to enroll in traditional schools, the overall rate can understate the progress that has been achieved. Comparing the female youth literacy rate, which measures women between 15 and 24 years old, with elderly literacy rates allows researchers to better gauge the impact of the formal education systems in the region.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “only about one-fourth of young women were able to read and write five decades ago” in sub-Saharan Africa. The literary rate of female youths in sub-Saharan Africa has risen to 72%, which is about seven percentage points lower than male youths.

According to the UNESCO report, Botswana, Cabo Verde and Equatorial Guinea made the best progress on this measure. Botswana came in at 99% in 2013, Cabo Verde at 99% in 2015 and Equatorial Guinea at 98% in 2010. Niger, Central African Republic and Chad performed worst at 36% in 2018, 29% in 2018 and 22% in 2016, respectively. Although there is still work to be done, both in providing educational opportunities for women and closing the gender disparity, the data shows that investing in girls’ education to increase female literacy in sub-Saharan Africa works.

Sowing the Seeds, Reaping the Rewards

Women who receive an education and become literate perform better on nearly every economic indicator of welfare than their uneducated peers. On average, educated women are more productive, healthy, earn higher wages and delay marriage and childbearing until a later age.

“Literacy is also a driver for sustainable development,” states UNESCO, “in that it enables greater participation in the labor market; improved child and family health and nutrition; reduces poverty and expands life opportunities.” This newfound knowledge is being parlayed into economic results. For example, studies show that the literacy premium in wages is higher among women than among men.

Unsurprisingly, the benefits of unlocking the human capital of women around the world have also rebounded to the whole of society. According to Jo Bourne of the Global Partnership for Education, “Investing in girls education delivers concrete, far-reaching economic and social benefits for all,” such as “an increase in female leaders [and]lower levels of population growth.”

Literate women also have healthier and better-educated children. This can lay the foundation for intergenerational progress.

Remaining Challenges

Today, girls and women may be more likely to drop out of school in order to address the urgent challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even more, governments with lower revenues may be tempted to divert funding from educational opportunities for girls.

In order for a community to flourish, for a society to progress and for a nation to develop, girls and women must be allowed to participate fully in the educational domain. As countries in sub-Saharan Africa and across the globe navigate the new challenges to education wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders would do well to remember Adams’s advice and the effects of increasing nations’ female literacy rates.

Brendan Wade
Photo: Flickr

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