(WOMENSENEWS)– This March marks Literacy Education Advocacy Month, an opportunity to call attention to the significance of global literacy.
While U.S. literacy rates have remained consistent for over a decade, literacy rates around the world are on the rise. However, according to UNESCO, 781 million adults and 126 million youths worldwide still cannot read or write a complete sentence.
Since March is also Women’s History Month, we should remember that girls and women make up two-thirds of the illiterate population worldwide, making global literacy an equal rights issue as much as a human rights issue.
As organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Literacy Foundation suggest, providing women with education decreases child mortality rates, reduces their exposure to AIDS and increases their economic gains.
What may be lost in among these promising statistics is the fact that teaching women to read and write gives them a voice. When women lack education, only men can write history.
UNESCO reports that the greatest gaps in literacy rates are found in the Arab states, South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In many areas of the world where women’s literacy rates are most disparate, female readers are seen as dangerous.
In 2012, 36 universities in Iran moved to ban women from certain disciplines – including English literature and translation – altogether. In a scathing letter to the U.N., Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi responded to this ban, saying, "The aim is that women will give up their opposition and demands for their own rights."
The desire for education places girls at risk: female students in many countries have suffered acid attacks from male classmates, including two girls in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu recently.
Media sensation Malala Yousafzai has drawn worldwide attention to the threat of the Taliban on girls’ education, but a new U.N. human rights report indicates that schools in more than 70 countries were attacked between 2009 and 2014.
Reading puts girls and women in danger because it teaches them to think independently and to be critical of the discourses that surround them. Writing gives women an avenue to voice discontent, to create alternative representations and to question the meta-narratives that require their silence.
Maddeningly, women’s voices are the minority in literature even in the countries with the highest literacy rates. The New Republic investigated 13 top U.S. presses, all the way from huge publishing houses like Random House, Norton and Knopf to small presses like Graywork and Verso, and found that only an average of 26 percent of their authors are female.
This paucity is part of a vicious cycle: to develop their voices, girls and women need to read other female visions of the world.
Despite the hardships, educated women in the most challenged areas have rewritten both their history and their future. This month, and every month, we should celebrate the women who dare to reshape the world.
Gretchen Busl is an assistant professor of English at Texas Woman’s University and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.
For More Information:
Buy the Book, “The Story of Zahra“:
Buy the Book, “Women of Sand and Myrrh“:
Buy the Book, “The Thing Around Your Neck“:
Buy the Book, “We Should All Be Feminists“:
Buy the Book, “Half of a Yellow Sun“:
Buy the Book, “Nervous Conditions“:
Buy the Book, “So Vast the Prison : a Novel (99 Edition)“:
Buy the Book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books“:
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