September 8th is International Literacy Day
To quote the Wikipedia entry on International Literacy Day:
September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO on November 17, 1965. It was first celebrated in 1966. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. Celebrations take place around the world.
Some 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills; one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women; 60.7 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out.
Now, those statistics are across the globe, and thankfully the rates in a lot of countries are closer to 99% literacy, across the board. But what is literacy? For this I turn to Dictionary.com’s definition.
Why is literacy important?
A person’s level of literacy has a broad impact on many aspects of their lives. (Again turning to Wikipedia):
Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure of the value of a region’s human capital. For example, literate people can be more easily trained than illiterate people – and generally have a higher socioeconomic status; thus they enjoy better health and employment prospects. Literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education.
It’s been shown in a number of studies that those who are able to read and write have a better chance of gaining skills that will earn them employment. But further, it has been shown that those who maintain a high level of literacy have a better chance of progressing in their field, and have overall stronger communication skills. Unfortunately, in many countries, literacy rates are exceptionally low (in South Sudan that rate is as low as 27% of people of 15 years of age are able to read and write), and there is often a huge disparity between the literacy rate between men and women. For example, in Yemen the literacy rate in 2010 was 63.9%, with 81.2% of males over 15 being classified as literate, compared to only 46.8% of women.
Now I’ve used this example, to show the extreme end of the scale, but when you consider that in some countries, less than one-in-three people is considered literate, and then you look at the economic and social states of many of those countries, you can see why many people support education programs abroad. Some of the countries in the lower end of the literacy scale have suffered wars, famines, economic disasters that can seriously impact the ability to maintain a stable educational system. But there are programs out there to help these countries recover from such events, and many of them include literacy and education a a key component to getting people back into routines that can help transition from disasters into more stable situations.
My personal experience with literacy
As you can imagine, being a writer, literacy has had an enormous impact on my life. Growing up, I learned to read from a very early age, and my parents actively encouraged me to push my reading skills as much as possible. When your father is a teacher, and your mother works for a local library, a love for the written word is almost a must, but they encouraged me to actively enjoy reading, and not to be ashamed of shutting myself away for hours just to finish a book.
I believe I was eight or nine when I discovered the works of Arthur C. Clarke, J.R.R. Tolkein, & Ursula K. Le Guin, which opened my eyes to worlds that were more colorful and detailed than any of the fairy tale stories I’d read up to that point. I started devouring books at an insane rate, often finishing three, or even four a week. So it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the books of interest in my school library, and started reading through my local library.
At the age of fourteen I was going in and out of London to museums, libraries, and just walking around the city, trying to learn as much as possible. I loved walking into libraries and bookstores just for the smell and the atmosphere, to the point where I joined the staff of a local library for weekend shifts. Now, for someone who loved to read, being able to take out up to twenty books at a time, for as long as three months, was a blessing. My reading rate slowed somewhat when I started studying for exams and then moved onto university, but I never stopped reading. No matter how busy my day gets, I always find a few minutes to slow down, and relax with a book. Sometimes I may have as many as four books going at a time, though usually two of those are non-fiction.
Even when I was in college, I never dreamed that I would move to another country, or become a published writer. I’m now 41, and my college days are behind me. I’m living in Alaska, rather than England. I’ve been happily married to a fellow reader/writer for over ten years. I’ve had three of my own stories printed, and am continuing to work on even more alongside my wife. My local independent bookstore has been a huge help in promoting my work locally, and I’m still finding the time to read every day.
International Literacy Day is our chance to show others not only why the ability to read and write is important to them, but to show the affects it can have on their lives.
There is no shame in being illiterate, or being a slow reader, but there are so many potential benefits from improving your level of reading. If you have someone in your life who could benefit from joining a literacy program, please encourage them to do so. Not only will you be helping them to improve themselves, and their lives, but they may find opportunities open to them that they couldn’t possibly imagine.