Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

The Literacy Gender Gap

September 8, 2019 – Since 1967, the United Nations has celebrated International Literacy Day each year on September 8 to shed light on the value of reading and writing. At its core, literacy is the ability to read and to write, but it’s really much more than that. It opens doors to an entirely different life. It is so powerful that many policy analysts consider it to be a population’s absolute key to socio-economic development. Literacy can even lead to better health, as individuals gain access to information about hygiene. Without it, you couldn’t read this post or share it on social media.

In today’s world, literacy has become a human right. Unfortunately, like many human rights, women proportionally have less access to it.

In 2016, the global literacy rate of adult women was 83% compared to 90% for adult men. That 7% spread equates to a 263-million-person difference – that’s about the population size of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. The good news is that the literacy rate globally has increased by 17.5% in 40 years, and the gender gap in literacy has decreased from 61% for women and 77% for men. However, we are still 13 percentage points away from global literacy and seven away from equality.

As of 2015, Afghanistan has the sixth-worst national literacy rate at 38%. What’s just as upsetting is the difference between the rate of men and women. Women in Afghanistan hold a mere 24% literacy rate compared to men’s 52%. This problem was exacerbated by Taliban control in the early 2000s, but former Global Leadership Award Honoree and Afghani entrepreneur Fatema Akbari is working to end Afghanistan’s literacy gender gap.

Fatema Akbari is the founder and owner of the Women Affairs Council – an NGO dedicated to women’s rights and empowerment in Afghanistan. Through the Women Affairs Council, she has negotiated with local leaders to provide skills training and literacy classes for women in Taliban-controlled territories. Through her work, she has given the gift of literacy to thousands of girls in Afghanistan.

Unlike Afghanistan, China’s total literacy rate is 96% with only a 4% spread between men and women, and yet there is much more than meets the eye. Though 94% of women are literate, China’s massive population means that 41 million women are illiterate. That’s greater than the entire population of Afghanistan.

Vital Voices Global Leadership Award Honoree Xie Litua noticed that this massive population of uneducated girls predominately live in rural China. Xie dedicated her life to empowering these young rural women – primarily through literacy. One of her biggest initiatives was creating the first-ever magazine for rural women in China. Through it, she reaches out to members of the community to write for it; for those that cannot read or write she holds literacy classes. Xie has impacted the lives of millions through her educational programs.

Countries like Mexico fall right in between literacy rates: its total literacy rate is on par with China, and has an even smaller gender gap. While Mexico still has room for improvement, it’s thanks to women like Vital Voices’ Voices That Inspire Fellow Saida Estefania Pena Flores, a student at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, that their gender gap is so small and total rate so high. Saida has started various initiatives at her school such as “Leer para Aprender” [read to learn] which have earned her the Líderes Del Mañana [Tomorrow’s Leaders] award.

At Vital Voices, our work supports women leaders like Fatima, Xie, and Saida so that they can continue to change lives through literacy. This September 8th we’re grateful for their work and the progress they’ve contributed to globally, and we’re excited to support them in the long road ahead to full, and equal, literacy everywhere.

This post was written by Jackson Prettyman, an intern for Vital Voices.