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Illiterate adults

©Jenny Matthews/ActionAid
©Jenny Matthews/ActionAid
A life in dignity and freedom from poverty is, for most people in the world, only possible through the attainment of literacy. Everyone has the right to such a life. Though only a few of the international human rights instruments directly spell out literacy as a right in itself, it is of course implicit in the right to education and the aims of education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are especially useful here, as illiteracy has an enourmous gender imbalance to it. See more under human rights law.

The Committee for the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CECSR), in their General Comment 13, has also made this authoritative interpretation of the existing international law on the matter:

 Art.13 §1 “education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities.”

Art 13 (2) (d): §24 “It should be emphasized that enjoyment of the right to fundamental education is not limited by age or gender; it extends to children, youth and adults, including older persons. Fundamental education, therefore, is an integral component of adult education and life-long learning. Because fundamental education is a right of all age groups, curricula and delivery systems must be devised which are suitable for students of all ages.”

Literacy is also one of the key priorities of the Education for All (EFA) agenda, and although these EFA Goals are not legally binding and enforceable, and therefore do not in themselves ensure education as a right, they are the key instrument by which the world is currently addressing the issue of literacy. However, despite the fact that governments worldwide have committed themselves politically to a 50% reduction in illiteracy by 2015, these same governments are investing scandalously little in programmes to deliver that goal. 

There are nearly one billion adults who cannot read and write, according to UNESCO statistics. The real figure is probably nearer to two billion and still more if numeracy and the actual use of these skills are taken into account. Most of these are people living in extreme poverty. Almost two thirds are women, and nearly 1 in 5 is a young person between 15 and 24. Yet these people have been abandoned in recent decades.

Why is adult literacy so important?

Literacy is vital to reducing gender inequality.

Adult literacy is critical for the healthy development and education of children, especially girls.

Literacy is vital to human and economic development.

Literacy is vital for fighting AIDS.

Adult literacy programmes work.

Literacy is about the acquisition and use of reading, writing and numeracy skills, and thereby the development of active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods, and gender equality. The goals of literacy programmes should reflect this understanding.

One of the best and most innovative methods for empowering people through literacy is the Reflect methodology, to learn more please visit the Reflect website.

Norms and standards:

The Dakar ‘Education for All’ goal of a 50% reduction in adult illiteracy by 2015 has been endorsed by 185 governments around the world.

For further information, see:

Adult Education: The Hamburg Declaration; the Agenda for the Future. 5th International Conference on Adult Education. Hamburg, Germany (1997) 

Recommendation on the Development of Adult Education; adopted by the General Conference at its nineteenth session, Nairobi (1976) 

Pre-draft Recommendation no. 58 to the Ministries of Education concerning Literacy and Adult Education (1965) 

28th International Conference on Public Education; Geneva; IBE/724. (1965) 

Déclaration sur l’élimination de l’analphabétisme pendant la décennie des Nations Unies pour le développement (1964)

Read more:

Writing the Wrongs:International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy

The Global Literacy Challenge: A profile of youth and adult literacy at the mid-point of the United Nations Literacy Decade 2003 – 2012

Global Monitoring Report 2006 - Literacy for Life



State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 “Adult literacy, vocational and tertiary education: why it matters to minorities and states” by Fay Warrilow