By Camilla Carlesi

“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” and “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” are the fourth and fifth Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. As of today, work has been done in order to reach these goals by 2030. However, when it comes to quality education and women empowerment data are not optimistic. The World’s Women 2015 study says that of the 781 million adults over the age of 15 estimated to be illiterate 496 million are women. This accounts for two-thirds of the whole illiterate population. Unfortunately, this ratio has not been changed much in the past years.

The higher rates of illiteracy are present in underdeveloped countries. About half of the illiterate women come from Sub Saharan Africa. In West Africa, for example, less than 25% of women can read. What are the main reasons? Primarily, being born in an underprivileged situation implies lower chances of getting a school education. In particular, being born in a family which did not receive education in the first place. When parents lack of education themselves, children will be less motivated to go to school. This phenomenon is called “intergenerational transmission of illiteracy” and it represents one of the major causes for illiteracy.

Transmission of illiteracy directly relates to poverty, as often children are held back from going to school because their family needs them to work in order to survive. Especially in countries which still rely on agriculture and farming, child labor is highly required. In addition to this, in places where gender roles are still well distinct, males are in charge of learning hard labor and females are asked to stay home to learn houseworks and eventually get married very young. According to recent UNICEF statistics about child marriage, the percentage of women in West and Central Africa who got married or in union before age 15 is 14% and 41% before age 18. This means that, about half the number of women living in West and Central Africa marry even before reaching legal age.

In the case of women, illiteracy is much more frequent also because of gender discrimination, which tends to stop females from both accessing and continuing education. A survey conducted by the GCE (Global Campaign for Education) states that girls in school feel that they are less safe and face more harassment than men. Therefore, even if some women manage to access education, it is harder for them to complete their studies due to the unpleasant situations they often have to face. Particularly, menstruation plays a major role in the spread of women discrimination. Females are subject to discrimination during their period but they also lack access to sanitary products or education regarding hygiene practices. Therefore, they need to stay home during their whole menstruation cycle and miss school. Because of this, according to UNESCO, girls are less likely to graduate from secondary school compared to boys. Solutions to this problems are easy to find, but difficult to implement. For example, teaching sanitary or sexual education to both men and women could tackle the issue of women discrimination, but it would be very difficult to insert in a very conservative environment. In general, all countries outside Africa (with the exception of Afghanistan) have literacy rates above 50%, which account for the higher global literacy ever. Therefore, luckily, the situation outside of Africa is not as negative.

As the UNESCO Chair of Bioethics and Human Rights, we want to share the data relating to women’s illiteracy in order to highlight the significance of the issue, promote gender equality and foster an easier access to education. We have been working to achieve these goals and we have developed projects dealing with this theme, such as CivicAL. CivicAL aims to spread the knowledge of Civic Education among people living in disadvantage situations . The project focuses on education, as it is an important vehicle for people to integrate into the society they are living in. The fact that women are less likely to even step inside of a classroom compared to men is an issue that needs to be solved immediately, since it puts in danger women’s integration into society. More projects like CivicAL should be implemented towards the goal of reducing global illiteracy to reach gender equality.