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Literacy situation in Asian and Pacific countries

Of the 35 Asian and Pacific countries covered in this report (for which data are available on literacy rates and the estimated numbers of people who are illiterate, see the country list in Annex 1 and data by country in Annexes 2 and 3), only nine countries (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Samoa, Tajikistan, Tonga, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) reported attaining literacy rates of 98 per cent or higher (see the statistical annex at the end of the EDN). This level creates a pervasive literate environment in which anyone else will feel the need to become literate.

There are huge disparities in the adult literacy rates among the remaining 26 Asian and Pacific countries: from 97 per cent in Mongolia to 26 per cent in Afghanistan (figure 2). Based on data available for the period 2005–2009, 13 countries recorded adult literacy rates of between 91 and 97 per cent, which approach the sustainable literacy state. Five countries in the middle (Cambodia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Lao PDR, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) posted rates of 73–85 per cent.

The literacy rates in the remaining eight countries varied, from 63 per cent in India to 26 per cent in Afghanistan. These are countries in which less than two thirds of the adult population are literate, with even less than one third in the case of Afghanistan. These are the countries in which priority attention must be given to increase literacy.

In terms of the number of people who are illiterate and the scale of literacy efforts needed, India has the biggest illiterate adult population, which was estimated at 283 million in 2006 (figure 3). This was followed by China, with nearly 65 million illiterate adults in 2009. Pakistan and Bangladesh each had around 50 million people who were illiterate in 2008 and 2009, respectively; Indonesia had about 13 million people who were illiterate in 2008. These five countries together accounted for 460 million illiterate adults, or almost 60 per cent of the world total. Accelerating the spread of literacy will not only empower the huge masses of people in these countries but also decisively contribute to addressing the illiteracy problem globally.

Other Asian and Pacific countries with a sizeable illiterate adult population include Afghanistan (with 9.5 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (with 8.3 million) and Nepal (with 7.6 million). Although smaller in size, these populations nonetheless present formidable challenges in the proportion to the relative size of the corresponding national population and capacity of the national education system.

Literacy rates among youth aged 15–24 years old are higher than adult literacy rates in all countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Youth literacy rates have reached more than 90 per cent in 24 countries and surpassed the two thirds threshold in another 10 countries (figure 4), with Afghanistan as the only country posting less than 40 per cent youth literacy.

Youth literacy rates that are considerably higher than adult literacy rates raise hope of accelerating the spread of literacy (a high degree of universal primary education reduces the influx of young people who are illiterate). Promising differences between youth and adult literacy rates of more than 10 percentage points can be observed in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Islamic Republic of Iran, Lao PDR, Nepal, Pakistan, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu (figure 4). An important literacy strategy will be further expanding actions to universalize quality basic education, which can increase the youth literacy rate to more than 90 per cent (leaving relatively smaller numbers of out-of-school children who will grow up illiterate).

Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that universal basic education will solve the problem of illiteracy. The International Adult Literacy Survey (Statistics Canada and OECD, 1995) indicates that even in developed countries, people who attain literacy in basic education will lose these skills if they live in an area where they cannot access books, newspapers and other written material. Follow-up literacy strategies, such as the expansion of public libraries and of reading and writing practices in daily life, are thus necessary even for young people if they live in remote areas where they risk losing the ability to access reading material that can help them address their everyday needs.

Other factors may also prevent a fully literate school population from maintaining their skills through adulthood. UNESCO stresses the importance of mother tongue education, at least in the early years (UNESCO, 2003). School graduates who return home to a community that uses a language different from the official language in which they learned to read or write may lose literacy. Standards of literacy may rise as well, leaving behind someone who only acquired basic literacy at school. As literacy expands, people may be required to read more in daily life, and their education may not have given them the degree of literacy skills to do so. For these reasons, a literate youth population may not grow into a fully literate adult population.

Souce: 2012 Asia-Pacific, End of Decade Notes on Education for All : Unicef 

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