Adult Literacy

When Adult Literacy Lags

In developing countries, there is a dearth of adult literacy. Approximately 773 million youth and adults cannot read or write.1 This lack negatively impacts individual’s economic opportunities and many other facets of their life, including parents’ ability to properly care for their children. It also prevents adults from fully participating in their communities and societies.2

Education typically begins in childhood. Reading, which children should be able to do by age 10, is a “gateway for learning,” declares The World Bank, a global institution fighting poverty through sustainable solutions.3 It is essential to education and the opportunities it brings. Yet only half of children in low- and middle-income countries, and 20 percent in some poor countries, can read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school.4

If people don’t gain these basic skills as children, they’re much less likely to do so as adults. Adult illiteracy can cause shame and embarrassment. It also limits job opportunities. According to one study, “illiteracy is a multifaceted social equity and justice problem that results in less job opportunities and low income, often poverty.”5

Everyday tasks can become confusing. For Preshti in Asia, visiting her mother was an arduous puzzle. Illiterate, she couldn’t read the signs, which made traveling to another city challenging.6 She also struggled to pay bills, check her earnings and count the change she received at the market, which left her vulnerable to being cheated.

Adult literacy also affects caregivers’ ability to properly care for children. Illiterate parents are unable to read warning labels or important medical information regarding their children’s health. When parents are literate, however, it’s “24 percent less likely children will be underweight or malnourished,” says the Borgen Project.7 When a child’s mother can read important information like warning labels, that child is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5.8 In fact, the Borgen Projects claims “infant mortality rate decreases approximately 9 percent for every year of education attained.”9

This power of knowledge also benefits adults’ health. According to the World Literacy Foundation – a literacy nonprofit – people who are illiterate, or have low levels of literacy, “are more likely to experience adverse health outcomes, have poor health literacy, and practice poor health behaviors.”10 Literacy, in contrast, has a “multiplier effect” that empowers people, says UNESCO; it “enables them to participate fully in society” and improve their lives, including their health.11 With the ability to read, people can better educate themselves and understand health concerns. In areas where disease can contribute to cycles of poverty, such as in developing countries, this knowledge is particularly important.12

Another area where adult literacy impacts children is in their education. It could be the key to a brighter future, but illiterate parents are helpless to assist children in their studies. Impoverished children often struggle in school, both from the lack of support at home and from other factors related to poverty such as malnutrition. If these children don’t receive a proper education, the cycle of poverty is likely to continue. But what are parents to do when they’re shackled by their own illiteracy and lack of opportunities?

In the U.S., someone may be able to find a literacy program at the local public library, but people in developing countries typically don’t have access to such resources. Fortunately, organizations like GFA World and other literacy organizations, are helping these families overcome illiteracy. In addition to education assistance through its child sponsorship program, which offers children a solid foundation, GFA workers conduct literacy programs so adults can gain skills like reading, writing and basic math. These skills empower individuals to improve their lives and provide a better future for their children.

In developing countries, the literacy rate for women is typically lower than men. As to poverty – literacy statistics, the lowest literacy rate in the world, 57 percent, is among women in sub-Saharan Africa, with women in Southern Asia just ahead of them at 63 percent.13 GFA World serves in such areas, and this gender gap is why GFA World’s literacy program focuses on women, like Preshti.

From a poor family, Preshti was unable to attend school as a child. An education seemed out of reach. Then she participated in GFA’s literacy program. With newfound confidence and skills, Preshti joined other women in a local small business plan, which helped them provide for their families.14

On a community level, literacy promotes things like gender equality, greater participation and sustainable development.15 It helps “fight poverty and stabilize the economies of developing nations.”16 On a personal level, it gives a sense of dignity, offers better opportunity and builds self-esteem.

Kutal’s secret illiteracy caused her shame. Though a believer, she stayed at home from church to avoid the humiliation she feared if she were ever asked to read Scripture. Then she learned how to read through a GFA literacy class. Not only could she finally read God’s Word, but her confidence soared!17

According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Literacy unlocks the capacity of individuals to imagine and create a more fulfilling future. It opens the way to greater justice, equality and progress. Literacy can help societies heal, advance political processes and contribute to the common good.”18

With its varied benefits, literacy is a powerful tool that can help people break the cycle of poverty. Concern Worldwide estimates that if all students in low-income countries had even basic reading skills, 171 million people could rise out of extreme poverty.19

Learn more about helping adults gain valuable literacy skills.

1 “Literacy.” UNESCO. Accessed August 23, 2021.
2 “Literacy.” UNESCO. Accessed August 23, 2021.
3 “What is learning poverty?” The World Bank. April 28, 2021.
4 “What is learning poverty?” The World Bank. April 28, 2021.
5Literacy Impact: Community & Economic Opportunity.” Trident Literary Association. Accessed 13 July 2019.
6 “Literacy Opens Business Opportunities for Woman.” GFA World. August 13, 2020.
7 Staesser, Daniel. “The Benefits of Literacy: Five Ways Literacy Fights Poverty.” The Borgen Project. Accessed August 23, 2021.
8 “Global poverty and education.” Children International. Accessed August 24, 2021.
9 Staesser, Daniel. “The Benefits of Literacy: Five Ways Literacy Fights Poverty.” The Borgen Project. Accessed August 23, 2021.
10 “Why Literacy?” World Literacy Foundation. Accessed August 23, 2021.
11Literacy.” UNESCO. Accessed 12 July 2019.
12 Staesser, Daniel. “The Benefits of Literacy: Five Ways Literacy Fights Poverty.” The Borgen Project. Accessed August 23, 2021.
13 “Literacy Rates Continue to Rise from One Generation to the Next.” UNESCO Institute for Statistics. September 2017.
14 “Literacy Opens Business Opportunities for Woman.” GFA World. August 13, 2020.
15 “Literacy.” UNESCO. Accessed August 23, 2021.
16 Staesser, Daniel. “The Benefits of Literacy: Five Ways Literacy Fights Poverty.” The Borgen Project. Accessed August 23, 2021.
17 “Woman’s Illiteracy Prompts Her to Skip Church.” GFA World. December 3, 2020.
18 “Literacy vital for beating poverty and disease and reinforcing stability – UN.” United Nations. Accessed August 24, 2021.
19 Giovetti, Olivia. “6 Benefits of Literacy in the Fight Against Poverty.” Concern Worldwide US. August 27, 2020.