New Internationalist

A prerequisite for peace: why literacy matters

How would you feel if you could not pick up the newspaper and read about the day’s events? Or wanted to send an email to a friend about a bad day but couldn’t write down what happened? Can you imagine not being able to read or write your own name? We all take for granted our ability to do these everyday tasks, but one in six adults around the world can’t.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that 793 million adults are illiterate and 67.4 million children do not attend school, with even larger numbers dropping out or missing lessons.

Yet literacy is important in many ways, not just in aiding a child’s self-confidence and improving their chances of getting a job, but in promoting peace, understanding and equality. According to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ‘literacy is essential to the development and health of individuals, communities and countries. It is a condition for people’s effective participation in the democratic process. It is the basis for the written communication and literature that have long provided the main channel for cross-cultural awareness and understanding. And it is the most precious way we have of expressing, preserving and developing our cultural diversity and identity. Literacy, in short, is a prerequisite for peace.’

While their thirst for knowledge may be there, it is often difficult for children to get an education due to prohibitive costs, violence in schools or the simple fact there is no school nearby. For children in countries recovering from extended conflict and upheaval, there are other, unique challenges. Not only to rebuild or strengthen educational structures, but also to support families and children who have been physically, psychologically or economically affected by violence and instability.

In Sierra Leone, for example, many children face difficulties with life on the street and with an education system that cannot provide for everyone. Children who were forced to become soldiers or sex slaves during the brutal 10-year civil war now face stigma and discrimination from being associated with violence. A local NGO, Help a Needy Child International, supports schools and communities in providing education to children by equipping them with basic materials and helping them understand the difficult circumstances that many of these children have encountered and continue to face. They pay for their school fees, materials and uniforms and provide numeracy and literacy lessons to prepare children for school. They also help families develop livelihoods so that in time they can take responsibility for paying their children’s school fees. By empowering the children to read and write, they help them take control of their future.

But combating high illiteracy figures requires more than ensuring that schools are there and that children are sitting in a classroom. Governments, community members, teachers, parents and the children themselves must all get involved in creating a safe and supportive learning environment.

So remember: you have been able to read this post, but there are millions of children and adults in the world who can’t. Understanding the contexts that these countries and children face is the first step in making progress towards increased literacy and promoting peace in regions affected by conflict.

Lianne Minasian is a Communications Team member of ChildHope, an international children’s charity dedicated to promoting social justice for children and young people in Africa, Asia and South America. Find out more about their work with children’s literacy and education.

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