A new education program in Liberia is teaching women in their 30s, 40s and 50s how to read and write – something that only a quarter of the country’s women can do. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that more such second-chance programs are needed to educate the world’s estimated 516 million women who remain illiterate.
More than two-thirds of all illiterate adults are women. The majority of the women live in West Africa, where many girls never get the chance to go to school.
Pauline Rose, head of UNESCO’s global monitoring report on Education for All, said that being illiterate poses a huge problem for women in day-to-day life.
“Some of the things people say is: that I can’t read the number on buses; I can’t pick up a medicine bottle and read the label and understand how many spoons of the medicine to take, for example. So there are real practical concerns about when women are illiterate,” she explained. “It affects not only themselves but also their families. They are often the main caregivers for children. And when women are illiterate they are less like to make use of health services.”
Rose noted that illiterate women are also more likely to die in childbirth and that their children are more likely to be malnourished.
Some countries, such as Senegal, have improved women’s literacy rates through government efforts to enroll more girls in primary school and community awareness programs on the importance of female education. But there are still many countries, such as Guinea, Niger, Benin, Mali and Burkina Faso, where less than one in four women can read and write.
Rose said literacy programs that target women are needed in these countries.
“In terms of this huge number of young women and adults who are already illiterate, there is obviously a need to have second-chance programs to ensure that they are able to become literate. That we can’t neglect them, just because they are no longer of primary school age,” stated Rose.
In Liberia, where just 27 percent of women are literate, the government has launched a massive second-chance literacy campaign to teach women. The women either never got to go to school or were forced to drop out due to the country’s more than 10 years of civil war.
Lonee Smith, 35, a student at the Firestone Liberia Natural Rubber Company’s adult literacy school in Margibi County, said having a second chance at education has changed her life.
“Today, I am a happy woman. I’m very proud. I’m in the first grade. I can read and write,” she said. “In the past, I couldn’t do that. My parents never sent me to school. But today I am happy that I can read and write. I’m a market woman. Now, I can sell my goods and count my profit with no one helping me. I am grateful.”
Liberia’s Ministry of Education said there are approximately 5,000 women, such as Smith, currently enrolled in adult literacy programs across the country.
UNESCO’s Rose said that while this is a good step forward, such programs need to be expanded in order to reach the millions of other women.