Sustaining women's literacy and SDGs | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 13, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:41 AM, September 13, 2015

Sustaining women's literacy and SDGs

The past week, on September 8, the world celebrated the International Literacy Day. This year's theme “Literacy and sustainable societies”was particularly significant considering the recently declared Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets. SDG 4 is to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all" while target 4.6 is "by 2030 ensure that all youth and at least x percent of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy." This year's International Literacy Day was also of particular significance given the latest UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (GMR) “Education for All 2000-2015”.

Bangladesh has made significant progress in terms of adult literacy over the past 25 years. The MDG targets have helped prioritise literacy among women, a socially neglected segment of the population, by directing public funds to expand schooling opportunities for girls.

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If published government records are any indication, the investment has paid off. According to UNESCO, female youth literacy jumped from 60 percent to 79 percent between 2000 and 2010 in Bangladesh. Given that girls outnumber boys in primary and secondary schooling, a further jump in female official literacy rate is expected. After all, formal schooling is the most critical institution for obtaining literacy skills in rural Bangladesh where many children belong to first-generation learners and illiterate parents.

However, evidence from the field and the recently published GMR warn that administrative data on literacy level in developing countries can be misleading.

This year's GMR has exposed the extent of illiteracy among adults around the world. Globally more than 750 million adults are unable to read and write, one that is faced by over half of all women in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia; the poorest young women are six times less likely to be able to read than the richest.

Similar evidence was presented for Bangladesh during a public seminar on "Learning Crisis in South Asia" at BRAC on August 24, 2015 where we discussed the evidence on vulnerability to illiteracy based on the 2014 WiLCAS (Women's Life Choices and Attitudes Survey) data. As part of the survey, we interviewed over 6000 women across 64 districts. In addition to asking women to self-report their literacy status (whether they can read and write), respondents were presented with a simple test of literacy alongside a rudimentary test of numeracy and cognitive ability. The results were striking. Consistent with government figures, 66 percent women reported themselves as literate. But only 48 percent of respondents could read two simple sentences in Bangla. Among women who reported themselves as literate, 35 to 60 percent failed in two simple grade 5 reading tests during the survey. Given that these so-called literate women had on average completed junior secondary equivalent schooling, WiLCAS findings suggest poor retention ability among a segment of Bangladeshi women.

This loss of literacy is a particular risk for women in developing countries where the overall school quality is poor. The environment in which women can acquire and retain literacy skills is also shaped by various forms of social restrictions and norms. For instance, majority of Bangladeshi women opt out of work life and spend most of their lives as housewives. This creates conditions where literacy skills can be lost which in turn creates a new form of vulnerability.

Functional illiteracy can undermine voice and agency among adolescent girls and women, which exposes them to various forms of violence such as early marriage.

Economic opportunities for women have been slowly increasing in Bangladesh with the expansion of the ready-made garment industry sector and microfinance schemes giving loans to rural women to set up microenterprises. But paid jobs for women graduating from secondary school still remains limited, making them vulnerable to situations where literacy cannot be retained. The poor quality of secondary schools makes it particularly hard to retain literacy in post-school years.

To make the matter worse, changing social environments have adversely affected participation in daily life activities involving literacy skills. As per the nationwide Bangladesh Literacy Survey (BLS) 2010 of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, only 3.54 percent of respondents reported reading newspapers and magazines several times in a month, and 2.81 percent each day. Stories and novels as reading materials were used by only 2.55 percent several times in a month and 2.53 percent daily. Only 3.04 percent of respondents visited local library several times in the last three months. Visits to other places such as book stalls, newsstands and village education community centres were as low as 10.58, 1.72 and 0.78 percent respectively.

The figures are even lower for rural areas and women. These statistics reinforce the conclusion of 2015 GMR -- increased access to learning opportunities is not enough if opportunities to use and retain literacy skills are low.

In the absence of functional literacy, millions of women in Bangladesh remain exposed to many forms of violence and insecurity. In addition, Bangladesh cannot sustain the process of social development that it has experienced over the past three decades without functionally literate mothers. Women's literacy is critical to attaining SDG 5: "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls".

As Bangladesh enters the post-2015 era of SDGs, we must ensure that our schools impart literacy skills that can be sustained in post-school years. Literacy campaigns must also be organised around the notion of 'lifelong learning' for all – children, youth and adults – irrespective of their level of schooling completed.

Efforts to create jobs for women must go hand in hand with government initiatives that ensure that rural schools provide minimum literacy skills that are sustained over time irrespective of what life choices women make over their lifetime. These can be completed by new initiatives targeting women who have graduated school but are economically inactive, constrained at home because of traditional social norms.

Many of them have easy access to ICT facilities which can be leveraged to create opportunities to promote literate environments and reading practices. However, there is also a wide gender gap in internet usage at the national level. According to BLS 2010, the corresponding figures were 2.00 percent for males and 0.97 percent for females.

In the absence of new initiatives and opportunities to sustain literacy in post-school years in Bangladesh, improved school enrolment and school completion by girls alone are unlikely to attain SDG target 4.6. Sustainable development is impossible in the post-2015 era without improved literacy and schooling will mean nothing without it.


The writers are Professor of Development Economics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Poverty and Development Studies (CPDS) at the University of Malaya, and Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Kent respectively. They can be contacted at and respectively.

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