Imagine not being able to read these words. That you could not read safety warnings at work or help a child with grade 2 homework. Imagine being excluded from political involvement and not being able to make informed financial decisions. These are the realities of many illiterate people in the world. This is why literacy is a fundamental human right and an essential tool for community development.

8 September 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day. It is aimed at celebrating the gains made in literacy, while it also seeks to encourage further engagement and more efforts to increase literacy on a global level. The theme for this year is “reading the past, writing the future.”

What is literacy?

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.” (Unesco)

Furthermore, UNESCO states that 757 million adults and 115 million youth do not have the ability to read or write a simple sentence. And an estimated two-thirds of these are women.

How does illiteracy affect everyday life in society?

Because illiteracy stems from a variety of factors, its effect on society can be enormous. Some individuals are born into poverty, with parents who may not have had any formal education, while child labour, in Africa especially, is also a contributing factor.

When people are illiterate, they are not able to access and understand health-related information, which affects health, hygiene and nutrition. The lack of awareness about sexual and reproductive health also puts people at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The number of unplanned pregnancies among young people increases, and so does the dependency on social grants. Illiteracy further impacts everyday interactions at financial institutions and in the workplace, and causes barriers to political participation.

One of the sustainable development goals targets is to get all youth and a substantial portion of adults (men and women) to achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030. This target was put in place to curb the effects illiteracy has on society.

Ending illiteracy for a better future

Even with the pledge of many leaders, governments, and organisations around the globe to work towards ending illiteracy, there is still a lot that can be done to help end illiteracy. In South Africa, there are many NGOs and government initiatives that have been put in place to promote literacy. These range from early childhood development interventions to adult literacy programmes. The more access people have to these programmes, the more progress is made to end illiteracy.

“An added bonus of teaching all kids to read and do basic arithmetic is that it automatically addresses another important piece of the SDG agenda: inequality between genders, classes, and social groups, and the special deprivation of people with disabilities. The beauty of a ‘zero goal’ (i.e. zero illiteracy and zero innumeracy) is that it applies to everyone, and prioritizes progress at the bottom of the distribution.” (Source)

National Book Week

South Africa also celebrates National Book Week from 5 to 11 September 2016, an initiative of the South African Book Development Council and the Department of Arts and Culture. It is aimed at promoting the value of reading. This initiative coincides perfectly with Literacy Day.

To commemorate National Book Week, staff members at Oxbridge Academy share some of their favourite books and why they value reading and literacy:

Oxbridge Academy the value of reading

Q: What is the importance of literacy for the development of society?

Mia: Literacy is vital to knowing our history, suspending our disbelief, imagining new realities and forging our future. To be literate is to be part of the global conversation. As such, there is nothing as fundamental to the development of society as literacy.

To quote Teju Cole: “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.”

Q: Why is reading important to you?

Kyla: Reading for me is an escape from my reality. When I read I become one with the book, I fully place myself in the shoes of the character and follow the story. I choose genres depending on what mood I am in to keep it interesting.

Reading is entertainment (you laugh and cry and really become so in tune with the plot). It has contributed to teaching me to have a broader vocabulary. Depending on the book, you learn so much about the past and present, it makes you think. Reading can benefit you in so many ways especially by teaching you numerous facts and bits of information which ordinarily you would not care about, but because you are enjoying the book you start accumulating knowledge ranging from information on psychology to how you would ideally like to be courted by a man if you are indeed a hopeless romantic. It keeps you occupied in a healthy way and is so enjoyable. I will always try and convince people to read as it is an enlightening experience that you can benefit from.

Marcelle: I have been able to read Afrikaans and English since I was six years old. I would read anything from Roald Dahl to National Geographic magazines. That gave me a great advantage in school, as I caught onto the work very easily, and it provided me with general knowledge I never would have acquired otherwise. Reading has expanded my knowledge, vocabulary and interests and has opened up the world to me. Quite recently, I was lured to the fantasy genre. It provides me with a reality to which I can escape at the end of a long day. It’s a space where I can be myself with no pretence or concern of what is going on around me.

Lauren: Reading has exposed me to so many positive things in life. Through reading, I was able to discover that I enjoy practising yoga, that it’s okay not to know everything about parenting and that I have a deep desire to go into the food industry one day. Through reading, I love that I am constantly exposing myself to a world of imagination and possibilities.

Mia: I connect with characters and built worlds often better than I do with real people and reality. Reading takes me away from my world and I become much more invested in a book than I do watching series or a movie. Reading deepens me, my knowledge, my understanding of the world and all its conceptual complexities.

Q: What types of books do you read?

Lauren: My love for reading started with poetry in grade 8 when I started writing and sharing my own poetry amongst my group of friends. I only completed my first book (by choice and interest) in grade 10 (a bit late, I know!) and have developed a huge love for romantic, spiritual and motivational novels ever since. I’ve read books by Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel, Rhonda Byrne, Elizabeth Gilbert and Zakes Mda. Currently, because I am an online writer, I started following and reading a lot of online blogs so I’ve been getting my daily reading ‘fix’ that way. Even though nothing really compares to the fulfilment of physically opening a book and reading it.

Mia: I’ve read many different kinds of books, but the most influential for me have been works of fiction and plays in the magical realism genre. They allow me to celebrate the strange undercurrents at play in life and to remember just how malleable reality can be.

Kyla: I read a variety of books, ranging from young adult, drama, suspense, war, historical romance, new age romance and fantasy and I also have my favourite poets.  I have read classics like Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I have read the whole Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer and most recently fell in love with a war time book called The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. I also have a slight obsession with poems by Edgar Allan Poe.

In celebrating Literacy Day, we should remember that literacy is a human right that is essential for development, and that this day, being commemorated under the banner of “reading the past, writing the future”, calls for all of society to play a role in changing the realities of illiterate people and in ensuring that no one is denied this right. This can be summed up beautifully in the words of Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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