Illiteracy, a stubborn problem in the Arab region
As UNESCO celebrated the International Day of Literacy on September 8, authorities in the Arab world released disappointing statistics on the subject.
In a world of rapid change and shifting landscapes, societies are expected to have moved past the issue of simple “literacy” and towards more complex issues of social, political, economic and digital literacy.
Educating citizens to properly read and write should be the bare minimum for an average society in 2017. In the Arab region, however, 27.1% of people are illiterate, according to the Arab League Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Alecso), meaning that even these basic educational standards are unmet.
Despite significant progress since the 1980s, the black cloud of illiteracy is still weighing heavily on some Arab countries that are currently going through a critical phase and facing tremendous political, social and economic challenges.
In a recent statement coinciding with the celebration of International Literacy Day, Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) announced that 20.1% of the total population is illiterate, with about 14.3 million Egyptians above the age of 10 who could not read and write; 9.1 million of them are women.
Egypt’s high rate of illiteracy adds to a slew of challenges that the country is facing, from an economic slump to security threats.
It could also jeopardise the country’s quest for democracy. In fact, democracies are known to thrive in populations that are well-educated and informed, and illiteracy, in this case, constitutes a major barrier to effective participation in the democratic process.
We are faced with a catch-22: Illiteracy brings about stagnation, and stagnation, whether economic, social or political, breeds high rates of illiteracy and is exacerbated by high rates of religiosity. This was the environment in which Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in 2011-2012.
To some extent, the same trends apply to Tunisia. Recently released figures from the minister of social affairs, Mohamed Trabelsi, show that almost 2 million Tunisians are illiterate, 18.8% of the country’s population. These revelations are extremely significant but were mostly overlooked by the country’s media.
Was it disbelief or embarrassment that prompted Tunisians to close their eyes to this bitter reality? Or was it the fact that it contradicts the message they have been unremittingly trying to convey to the world: That Tunisia is a success story, both in terms of its educational achievements and democratic transition?
With statistics now available, we know that Tunisia is not the most educated Arab nation, compared to the United Arab Emirates, where illiteracy rates have reportedly dropped to below 1%, and Palestine, which boasts one of the lowest illiteracy rates among Arab countries with only 3% of its population affected.
Trabelsi called Tunisia’s figures “shameful” in a media statement and stressed the importance of devising a strategy to combat illiteracy.
Since its independence, Tunisia has bet on education as a key to development. Former president and late founder of the republic Habib Bourguiba heavily invested in education and developed a system aimed at producing skilled labour to address the needs of a developing nation.
Bourguiba’s plan to build a strong education system seems to have hit later hurdles, however. Delayed reforms, futile policies and false promises plagued the system, which ultimately failed to adjust to global standards and provide services to the least advantaged, especially in rural areas.
According to experts, those living in interior regions of the country, especially women, are even more likely to be illiterate. But a lack of statistics to assess regional and gender disparities makes it impossible for the government and other bodies to adequately address the problem.
In 2016, the National Institute of Statistics announced that over 19.3% of Tunisians over the age of 10 were illiterate. For women over the age of 10, the rate was even higher at 25%. In Kairouan, a city of about 200,000 known for its religious monuments and history, 50% were illiterate. In 2014, the Islamist Ennahda party effectively swept the legislative elections in Kairouan, winning 31.88% of the vote, another reflection of the correlation between illiteracy and religiosity.
In Tunisia, the majority of the disadvantaged live in interior regions where there is a lack of resources, electricity and quality education. Children who grow up in poverty often do not attend school from a young age. And though education is free and compulsory in Tunisia, getting an education costs money. School uniforms and supplies such as books are often out of reach for many people in rural areas. In the end, many kids drop out of school and work to help their families.
In other countries that have suffered the evils of war, the situation is even more worrisome.
There are some 2.25 million Syrian children out of education, according to UNICEF. In Iraq, more than 78,000 school-aged children from the Mosul area have been displaced since last October. Yemen, which has been in a state of conflict since 2015, has the highest rate of illiteracy in the Arab world, with 30% of its population unable to read and write.
While students around the world go back to school, millions of children in Arab conflict-ridden countries have no classes to attend. The lack of education for these children could create a lost generation, unable to meet standard occupational and societal demands and vulnerable to social ills such as unemployment, crime and poverty.
The situation can be described as alarming with an illiteracy rate that is poised to increase on account of instability, ongoing crises and armed conflicts in the region. Our only hope to avoid this trajectory is to admit our shortcomings, support initiatives for child education as well as adult literacy programmes. Civil society groups can also play a significant role in promoting literacy and fostering knowledge through reading. It is never too late to mend if we unite against illiteracy.
Iman Zayat is the Managing Editor of The Arab Weekly.