Increasing Literacy Rates in Brazil


RIO DE JANEIRO – About one year has elapsed since last year’s World Cup, held in Brazil. All in all things did not go entirely as expected for the host nation. Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 semifinal defeat to Germany only served to galvanize the many protesters angered by the World Cup’s precedence over more pressing social and political issues. While hosting the competition seemed to herald Brazil as an ascending BRIC economy, it also exposed faults in the country’s public services and infrastructure.

The discrepancy between Brazil’s aspirations and realities played out in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in the spring and summer of last year as thousands of protesters took to the streets. The demonstrations attempted to call attention to issues like public education that have been neglected due to preparation for the World Cup. In Rio de Janeiro, demonstrators, including teachers and museum employees, protested the refurbishing of the Maracana Stadium, funds for which could have provided for 200 schools. Teachers in Rio de Janeiro also went on strike to fight for higher wages and better working conditions.

While these protests would seem to suggest that Brazil has a struggling or even failing education system, this is not entirely the case; progress has been made in Brazil in recent years. According to UNESCO, “the Brazilian educational system has been remarkably improved in recent decades…there has been a sharp drop in the illiteracy rate, a huge increase in enrollments at all levels, and a gradual increase in the average schooling of the population, particularly of the female population.”

This advancement in literacy rates in Brazil slowly accelerated in the late 20th century as urbanization and advancements in infrastructure increased access to education. From 1960 to 1991 the illiteracy rate dropped by half, from 40 percent to 20 percent. While this may seem like a vast improvement, it proceeded at a relatively slow rate of only 0.63 percent per year on average.

In 1991, the Brazilian census also displayed troubling socio-economic dimensions to the issue. It found that Brazilians of black and mixed-race heritage faced higher rates of illiteracy than Caucasians. At the time, only 11.9 percent of Caucasians were illiterate in comparison to 27.5 percent of the mixed-race population and 31.5 percent of the black population. Similarly, the census revealed that illiteracy varied by region, with the poorer, under-developed north-east experiencing less increase in literacy than more urbanized southern regions.

Amidst worrying data, however, a small triumph also seemed to exist. A 1996 report found that girls across Brazil had on average more years of schooling than their male counterparts. The increased presence of women in the Brazilian working world at the time also seemed to have inspired girls to invest in their educations.

Yet these outwardly positive statistics also belied an unfortunate truth. An UNESCO report claimed that this increase in female literacy rates in Brazil was owed in part to child labor, which drew boys into the workforce and out of the classroom. While girls also experienced child labor, they worked in more domestic conditions that allowed them to continue their schooling.

Brazilian education has come a long way since then, thanks in part to directed efforts over the last 15 years. The Brazilian President Lula served as a catalyst for this change and sought to make education of young Brazilians a major human rights issue during his tenure from 2003 to 2011.

In the first year of his presidency, Lula launched the ‘Brasil Alfabetizado,’ or Literate Brazil program, which aimed to provide education to young people over the age of 15 who lacked access to reading, writing, oral expression and mathematics courses. The Literate Brazil program received 1.67 million attendees in its inaugural year and 1.7 million in its second year. Lula’s administration also sought to challenge regional and ethnic disparities in literacy by creating the Secretariat of Continuing Education, Literacy and Diversity.

The efforts of Lula’s administration have paid off. According to a 2010 demographic census, the rate of illiteracy for Brazilians over age 15 decreased from 25.4 percent in 1980 to 9.6 percent. In comparison to the underwhelming .63 percent average annual improvement in literacy rates seen from 1960 to 1991, Brazil saw a 3.3 percent annual increase in literacy from 2000 to 2010. This stands as a dramatic improvement over previous years.

Due to his emphasis on youth education, Lula also successfully helped level the disparity between regional illiteracy rates. The north and north-east regions of Brazil, those most affected by illiteracy, experienced a greater increase in literacy than any other region. In fact, those living in rural areas experienced a greater decline in illiteracy than those living in urban areas.

The rapid increase of Brazil’s literacy rates has been by many accounts remarkable. While last year’s FIFA protests suggest that Brazil still has farther to go, they also should remind us of the progress Brazil has made. Civil disobedience is often a product of the educated mind.

Andrew Logan

Sources: The Guardian, The Guardian, National Research and Development Center, UNESCO, UNESCO, BBC
Photo: Chris K Bacon


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