Literacy: An Imperative for Women and Girls Liberation

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I November 5th, 2014

One of the greatest threats to global patriarchy is literacy, or more specifically, the education of girls and women. This truth is well known by repressive regimes such as the Taliban, who in 1996, after coming to power in Afghanistan, passed their first decree which was the banning of women and girls from attending school. Prior to this ban, women in Afghanistan were well educated and held some of the most prestigious jobs in the country. In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan's highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women.

Today, Afghan women have some of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world, and suffer the resultant socio-economic consequences of such. Girls and women were once forced to attend underground schools and risk great harm or even death if they were discovered. Acid attacks are now being used against these girls, and the reason why goes back to that essential truth - their education represents a threat to and a means to dismantle patriarchy. Razia Jan, a 2012 CNN Heroes awardee, explains this fear: "In their eyes, a woman is an object that they can control. They are scared that, when these girls get an education, they will become aware of their rights as women and as a human being."

The kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram, and the vicious murder attempt against Pakistani Noble Peace Prize Winner and activist Malala Yousafzai, stand as other examples of the fear of the educated girl (and woman). Literacy will provide the needed spark to release this stored potential energy, which can bring about radical changes to global politics, systems of government, economies, family sizes and family structures. Essentially, educated girls will grow into women who will ask questions, be more politically engaged, and who will demand an improve standard of living.

Illiteracy is not only a problem that impacts girls and women in the Developing world or Global South. There are a number of girls and women who are functionally illiterate here in the United States. These girls have faced a different set of obstacles to literacy, which include: attending schools in areas that are underfunded, not having access to books, and large class sizes which make it difficult for teachers to instruct and assess each student. There is also the problem of social promotion in this country, which creates functionally illiterate people who have mastered the act of "getting by" in society. Other obstacles to literacy for girls in the United States are social conditions such as homelessness, domestic abuse, child abuse/neglect, extreme poverty, and transportation issues.

The Numbers

So, what exactly does this worldwide problem of illiteracy among girls and women look like:

- 54 of the 76 million illiterate young women come from nine countries, most in south and west Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and not necessarily those with high rates of adult illiteracy: India (where almost 30 million young women are illiterate), Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Republic of Tanzania, Egypt and Burkina Faso.

- Around the world, two-thirds of adults who are illiterate are female,

- In Niger, there is a 15.1% literacy rate among women

- In Mali, there is a 24.6% literacy rate among women

- In Somalia, there is a 25.8% literacy rate among women

- In Guinea, there is a 30% literacy among women

- In the Sub-Saharan East African nation of Ethiopia, which has a very patriarchal society, statistics from 2009 indicate that 82% of Ethiopian women aged 15 and over are illiterate

- Only 35% of women in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia enroll in secondary education

- In the U.S., 75% of homeless children perform below grade-level in reading

- 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19% of high school graduates can't read.

Worldwide young women aged 15-24 are making the strongest gains, but still lag behind young men.

Why Literacy?

Education's importance has been emphasized by a number of international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development1 Education and literacy should be viewed as human rights for a plethora of reasons, beginning with the fact that education is indispensable in realizing other human rights. Education allows individuals to readily access information and resources in societies that will allow them to have better standards of living. Literacy ensures that they can be socially and politically engaged, and help to elect legislators that will develop policies that will improve their lives.

Literate girls and women have a greater degree of social mobility; as increases in girls' secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women's participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income. Thus, women become more independent. Financially independent women are more readily able to leave abusive situations involving intimate partner violence because they are not burdened by thoughts of poverty and homelessness.

Further, as female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall, while overall family health improves. Women's increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition and child development.2 In reducing the number of child pregnancies, education helps to prevent reproductive disorders and childbirth mortality, which often plagues young mothers. Even when viewing a chronic disorder like Alzheimer's disease, which shows higher rates in women, formal education provides a benefit of prevention and risk reduction.

In terms of women and girls empowerment, literacy is critical for engagement and networking. The 4th Wave of Feminism is largely touted as Digital and Transnational Feminism; relying heavily on social media, the internet, and online communications. Literacy will allow girls to tap into this growing and highly active community, and will allow them to be exposed to information regarding women's and human rights.


So, how can we champion literacy for girls and women, especially since it is so colossal of a task? The first and most feasible step would be educating yourself and committing to a lifetime of reading and engagement. Next, begin by encouraging girls and young women in your life to read, and to find enjoy in it. The holiday season is around the corner; why not include books and other educational materials/devices on your holiday shopping list. Mentor a young girl and challenge them to think and consider current events, by beginning discussions with statements such as simple as, "what do you think about_____?"

Consider donating to, volunteering and assisting organizations that are on the ground working to improve literacy rates of girls and women worldwide. Volunteering may involve helping to manage their social media sites, develop informational materials, conducting research, and so on. The opportunities are diverse.

Help raise awareness on the continuing issue of illiteracy (sometimes it is as simple as hitting a SHARE button and beginning a dialogue around your post on social media). Advocate for needed policy changes and provide Letters of Support to campaigns that are demanding these changes (nationally and internationally).

These are only initial and small steps that one can carry out to assist in the mitigation of illiteracy.


Ultimately, literacy - being able to read and write - is a fundamental human right in that it is empowering and allows people to participate fully and equally in their society. It removes critical barriers to social mobility and a favorable quality of life. For those who are unable to read and write are destined to remain on the social and economic margins of our world. Currently, the marginalized are disproportionately made up of women and girls.

With that, I leave you with the words of Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations....

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.


United Nations (UN), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: UN, 1948); and UN, International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (New York: UN, 1994): para. 4.18.

Daisy Dwyer and Judith Bruce, eds., A Home Divided: Women and Income in the Third World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988).