Building peace in the minds of men and women


Illiteracy: “Another form of slavery”


La Perona, a school for adults in Barcelona, Spain, 1973.

Katerina Markelova

“The nineteenth century can boast of having legally abolished slavery by law, and the twentieth century should devote its efforts to the abolition of another form of slavery – illiteracy,” declared Jaime Torres Bodet, Director-General of UNESCO (1948 to 1952), at an education conference in 1949.

The fight against this other “form of slavery” has been at the very heart of UNESCO’s mandate since the  beginning. In the years following the Second World War, illiteracy affected more than forty-four per cent of adults worldwide, with significant disparities between regions and countries. In Malawi, for example, it exceeded ninety per cent.

Europe was not spared. In Calabria, southern Italy, almost half the population could neither read nor write. It was in this region that UNESCO, together with the Italian government and non-governmental organizations, took part in one of the first campaigns to combat illiteracy. This was followed by other initiatives, like those in Iran in 1965, and Nicaragua in 1980. More recently, in 2008, the Organization launched a literacy campaign that benefited 1.2 million Afghans, including 800,000 women. 

In almost seven decades, considerable progress has been made. The global adult literacy rate rose to eighty-six per cent in 2016, and to ninety-one per cent for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics. In South Asia, girls can now expect to complete twelve years of schooling, compared to just six in 1990. 

But in spite of these advances, the global education map continues to be marked by glaring inequalities. A majority of the world’s 773 million illiterate adults are women. It is to reduce this proportion of the population excluded from schooling – but also to ensure inclusive  and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning – that Goal 4 on education was adopted as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with UNESCO as the lead agency. 

Girls testing the airplane models they crafted at the Tamagawa Gakuen primary school in Tokyo, 1962.

Learning to read and write at a village school in Koloni Boundio, Mali, 1994.

Children of the nomadic Samburu pastoralists play and learn at enclosed Loipi community learning centres in northern Kenya, 2006.

The École des Trois Docteurs, a school in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh district, damaged by the blasts on 4 August 2020. As part of its Li Beirut initiative, UNESCO is co-ordinating the rehabilitation of schools in Lebanon.

Read more:

Transforming lives through education, UNESCO, 2018
Learning is child's play, The UNESCO Courier, October 2006
Southern Italy fights the battle against illiteracy, The UNESCO Courier, March 1952


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