Winning Two Necessary Battles: Using Literacy to Improve Gender Equality


SEATTLE — The day when the ability to read and write does not discriminate based on gender is approaching and no longer far-fetched. However, as literacy rates continue to improve, gender equality experiences a parallel increase. Using literacy to improve gender equality is a sure-fire way to make the world smarter and more inclusive.

Global trends show that illiteracy disproportionately affects women and girls. This presents a far-reaching issue: roughly 757 million adults and 115 million children are illiterate. Since 1990, women have accounted for an estimated 66 percent of illiterate adults. For children, the statistics are similar, as less than half of all countries provide equal access to education for all genders, impeding literacy.

Women and girls living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most impacted by illiteracy. Sixteen countries in Africa have adult literacy rates that drop below 50 percent. Illiteracy rates are most disproportionate with older generations. One report found that globally, 30 percent of senior women were illiterate compared to only 19 percent of senior men. Without access to equal opportunity or literacy, these statistics reinforce a cycle of poverty among low-income and marginalized populations.

But fighting these statistics does far more than simply equalizing the playing field for literacy, as the ability to read and write provides opportunities that specifically advance women’s empowerment. UNESCO emphasizes that literacy is “a lever to attain a range of rights, skills for work, and socioeconomic participation and empowerment, particularly for women and girls.” But what are some of the exact benefits of literacy for gender equality?

A cornerstone of using literacy to improve gender equality ties to equitable participation in the workforce. Improving literacy rates among women allows them to obtain higher-paying jobs and financial autonomy. This challenges the common gender role of women as homemakers. Ultimately, participation in the workforce helps diminish the wage gap, as women currently earn an average of 60-75 cents to a man’s dollar.

Improved gender equality in literacy also boosts health for mothers and their children. Literacy increases access to healthcare and knowledge of common diseases, treatments and nutrition. It also prevents deaths of new mothers, as 800 women die every day as a result of childbirth. For example, an extra 1.8 years of schooling for young women in Kenya during one study equated to a 34 percent reduction in maternal deaths. This generates positive results for others, too, as babies born to literate mothers are 50 percent more likely to live past the age of five.

The United Nations states that “every literate woman marks a victory over poverty.” This rests on the power of literacy to provide people with the necessary tools for long-term economic and livelihood sustainability while preventing them from falling back into poverty. Ultimately, this can increase the numbers of equitable literacy; ensuring that all children can read could mean a 12 percent reduction in world poverty, providing around 171 million people with stronger futures.

UNESCO explains that many programs designed to improve women’s literacy and reduce gender inequality are making strides around the world. However, better access to education and stronger leadership from governments and other influential bodies continue to create drastic improvements.

Gender equality in literacy is steadily improving, as it is recognized as a pinnacle tool for sustainable development. Ultimately, using literacy to improve gender equality is necessary in a world when contributions from all genders are impossible to overlook. As marginalized groups receive more access to education, a more gender-equitable world develops.

Cleo Krejci
Photo: Flickr


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