Women & Literacy

Over 660 million women cannot read or write, limiting the futures of everyone

Opinion | Laurie Richardson | April 2011

Though global illiteracy rates are falling, about one in every six adults still cannot read or write. Despite progress made since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, the majority of illiterate adults – two out of three – are women.

These numbers are troubling: There are one billion illiterate adults in the world, and if two-thirds of them are women, that means there are over 660 million women who cannot read or write. Another thought-provoking statistic: literate women have on average two children per family, while illiterate women have six to eight children. Simply put, literacy makes a major difference in women’s lives and quality of life. It has a positive impact on family size, world population and the environment.

Last September, in recognition of International Literacy Day, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed the transformative impact of women who can read and write on families and communities.

"Literate women are more likely to send their children, especially their girls, to school," Secretary Ban said. "By acquiring literacy, women become more economically self-reliant and more actively engaged in their country’s social, political and cultural life. Every literate woman marks a victory over poverty." He called for "increased funding and sustained advocacy for quality literacy programs to empower women and girls."

Governments and non-governmental organizations are working together to make literacy accessible to women everywhere. As part of this, the AWA Vienna plans to mobilize our members as volunteer English tutors for a Vienna social service organization working with immigrants, and is recruiting now for those willing and able to volunteer time or make some other contribution to an organization involved in literacy work.

The focus of International Women’s Day 2011 was empowering women through equal access to education and training, for Women’s History Month this year it was "Our History is Our Strength." Learning about the important role women have played in history is a great source of strength for all of us, and for many too often still comes as a surprise. This needs to change. Through learning – through education – we can empower ourselves and all women.

But all of us, women and men alike, suffer from gender discrimination when we fail to make the most of half the world’s talent and potential. The strength, industry and accumulated wisdom of women remain humanity’s greatest untapped resource. We cannot wait another 100 years to unlock this potential. We must do all we can to educate women and give them access to equal opportunities in the family, the workplace, and the community.


Laurie Richardson is President of the American Women’s Association of Vienna, an international community of English-speaking women from 30 countries.


Other articles from this issue