Unesco Institute for Statistics

The statistical data printed below on the literacy rate among young adults are taken from the “Statistical Document. Education for All 2000 Assessment, EFA International Consultative Forum”, which the UNESCO Institute for Statistics published on the occasion of the World Education Forum. This offers a first insight into the quantitative data collected through this assessment at global, regional and national levels. These data are the basis for evaluating the extent to which the goals for education have been met, and for identifying challenges for the future.

Statistical Document
Education for All – 2000 Assessment

Literacy

Literacy involves a continuum of reading and writing skills, often extending to basic arithmetic skills (numeracy) and life skills. Literacy reflects the accumulated achievement of primary education and adult literacy programmes in imparting basic literacy skills to the population, thereby enabling people to apply such skills in daily life and to continue learning and communicating using the written word. Because of the need to collect comparable data across the world, this complex concept is usually reduced to the definition: Literacy is the ability to read and write, with understanding, a simple statement related to one’s daily life.Dhis is the indicator measured in the Education for All Assessment.

The Elimination of Adult Illiteracy
(Indicators 16, 17 and 18)

Two groups of ages have been used in the study of literacy: young adults aged 15–24 years old; and adults aged 15 years and over. Countries collect these data in different ways. Some rely on household surveys, others collect the data concerning young people through school surveys, whereas others only collect the data through infrequent population censuses. Because of the different methodologies, the differences in sample coverage and the infrequency of some data collection, one must be cautious in interpreting reported literacy rates. In particular those near to 100 per cent may be an indicator of imprecise specification.

Most of the analyses by region and country are based on data provided in the EFA national reports. The global estimates and trends were drawn from recent estimations and projections of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

General Analysis

The latest estimations and projections of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) show that four out of every five adults (aged 15 years and over) in the world are literate. The adult literacy rate continued to rise over the past thirty years, from 63 per cent in 1970 to 75 per cent in 1990 and to 79 per cent in 1998. At this rate of progress, it should reach approximately 83 per cent by the year 2010 (Fig. 6.1).

Figure 6.1 - Trends in adult (+15) and young adult (15-24) literacy rate by region, 1970-2010

Figure 6.1 - Trends in adult (+15) and young adult (15-24) literacy rate by region, 1970-2010

The number of adult literates in the world has more than doubled from an estimated 1.5 billion in 1970 to around 3.2 billion in 1998 (Fig. 6.2). Despite this progress, there were still some 880 million illiterate adults in the world in 1998, two-thirds of whom were women (64 per cent). At the current rate of progress, it is estimated that the overall number will decrease to some 830 million by the year 2010, unless major efforts are made to improve the quality of basic education and eradicate illiteracy. More than 98 per cent of the world’s adult illiterate population are found in the less developed regions.

Literacy rates among young adults (15 to 24 years old) are generally higher than those for adults and have progressed from an estimated 74 per cent in 1970 to 84 per cent in 1990 and 86 per cent in 1998
(Fig. 6.1), bearing witness to efforts to improve the coverage and quality of education. However, despite such efforts, one out of every seven young adults is still illiterate.

Figure 6.2 - Trends in adult literate and illiterate population in the world, 1970-2000

Figure 6.2 - Trends in adult literate and illiterate population in the world, 1970-2000

I – Literacy Rate of 15-24 Year Olds (Indicator 16)

The literacy rate among the 15-24 years old has a special significance because it reflects the achievement of education systems over recent years.

Response rate:1 80 countries

Regional Analysis

According to the EFA national reports, countries in sub-Saharan Africa had a median literacy rate of 83 per cent, as compared to 95 per cent in the Arab States and North Africa, 97 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 98 per cent in East Asia and the Pacific and nearly 100 per cent in the countries in transition. Sub-Saharan Africa, where there are still countries whose literacy rates are lower than 50 per cent, is also the region in which there is the greatest variation between countries, followed by South and West Asia and the Arab States and North Africa, with a variation between the minimum and maximum values of 61 percentage points. The largest disparities are observed in Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and East Asia and the Pacific. All countries providing data over the decade reported an increase in literacy rates of varying degrees. The most dramatic change occured in Comoros, with a rise of 26 percentage points since 1990 (Fig. 6.3).

II – Adult Literacy Rate (Indicator 17)

The adult literacy rate measures the percentage of the population aged 15 years and over who are literate.

Response rate:2 115 countries

Regional Analysis

Among the world’s less developed regions, the adult literacy rate is the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, with respective median rates of 57 per cent and 58 per cent (Table 6.2). Latin America and the Caribbean and the Arab States and North Africa have intermediate median rates of 88 per cent and 80 per cent respectively, and the highest can be observed in East Asia and the Pacific (94 per cent) and in Central Asia and Central and Eastern Europe (98 per cent). There are considerable inter-country disparities within each region. These disparities are highest in sub-Saharan Africa where the range extends from 25 per cent in Liberia to 88 per cent in Seychelles. This region is followed by South and West Asia and the Arab States where inter-country disparities of 40 percentage points or more exist. Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean experience the lowest disparities.

Figure 6.3 - Literacy rate of the population aged 15-24 years old in some countries, 1990 and 1998

Figure 6.3 - Literacy rate of the population aged 15-24 years old in some countries, 1990 and 1998

For the majority of reporting countries, substantial progress was made in raising adult literacy rates over the decade, for example by a reported 21 percentage points in Bangladesh. However, progress is not universal as illustrated by the adult literacy rates in Honduras, which dropped from 27 per cent in 1990 to 21 per cent in 1998.

Region (number of countries)

Median

Range

Sub-Saharan Africa

(10)

83

61

Latin America/Caribbean

(10)

97

9

Central Asia/Central and Eastern Europe

(11)

100

1

East Asia/Pacific

(9)

98

25

South and West Asia

(5)

67

4

Arab States/North Africa

(13)

95

31

Table 6.1 - Literacy Rates of population aged 15-24 years, 1998 (median value and variation within regions)

Region (number of countries)

Median

Range

Sub-Saharan Africa

(24)

57

63

Latin America/Caribbean

(18)

88

28

Central Asia/Central and Eastern Europe

(14)

98

16

East Asia/Pacific

(10)

94

40

South and West Asia

(7)

58

54

Arab States/North Africa

(16)

80

49

Table 6.2 - Literacy rates of population older than 15 years, 1998 (median value and intra-regional variation)

III – Literacy Gender Parity Index: Ratio of Female to Male Literacy Rates (Indicator 18)

The literacy gender parity index measures the gender gap between male and female literates.

Response rate:3 78 countries for 1998

According to the latest estimation of the UIS, in 1990, there were eight literate women for every ten literate males and this rate saw only a slight improvement over the decade (Fig. 6.4).

Figure 6.4 - Trends in the adult literacy rate by gender, 1970-2010

Figure 6.4 - Trends in the adult literacy rate by gender, 1970-2010

Regional Analysis

In general, increases in overall adult literacy rates have been accompanied by reductions in the gender gap. Thus, in Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean, where the literacy rates are the highest, the disparities between the sexes are lowest.

Table 6.3a - Adults (18 years and over)

Region (number of countries)

Minimum

Median

Maximum

Sub-Saharan Africa

(21)

0,25

0,79

1,04

Latin America/Caribbean

(14)

0,81

1,00

1,17

Central Asia/Central and Eastern Europe

(13)

0,79

0,99

1,00

East Asia/Pacific

(9)

0,65

0,98

1,02

South and West Asia

(7)

0,44

0,76

1,01

Arab States/North Africa

(13)

0,52

0,80

1,09

Table 6.3b - Young adults (15-24 years old)

Region (number of countries)

Minimum

Median

Maximum

Sub-Saharan Africa

(10)

0,52

0,91

1,05

Latin America/Caribbean

(9)

0,97

1,00

1,09

Central Asia/Central and Eastern Europe

(11)

0,98

1,00

1,00

East Asia/Pacific

(6)

0,80

1,00

1,03

South and West Asia

(5)

0,64

0,71

0,95

Arab States/North Africa

(11)

0,67

0,99

1,02

Gender disparities in literacy remain high especially in South and West Asia, in the Arab States and North Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than three-quarters of the countries show gender parity indices of less than 0.8. In some of these countries, such indices can be as low as 0.6 or even 0.5. Gender disparities decreased in two-thirds of the 42 countries that reported data on changes in literacy gender parity over the decade. For example, in Cambodia the literacy gender parity index increased from 0.52 in 1989 to 0.73 in 1997.

Similarly increases have been observed in Yemen, Comoros, Mali, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, although these countries are still far from approaching gender parity in literacy (Table 6.3a).

The gender gap in literacy among young adults (15-24 year-olds) is generally lower than that of adults. Based on the data reported by 53 countries, there is little or practically no gender gap in literacy rates for the 15-24 age-group in the countries of Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The widest gender disparities for young adults are found in South and West Asia, the Arab States and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. In the latter region, the literacy gender parity indices in Liberia and Benin have been reported to be 0.54 and 0.52 respectively. However, in some countries, literacy gender parity deteriorated over the decade (Table 6.3b).

Notes

1 of which 59 countries provided data for 1998, and 31 for 1990 and 1998
2 of which 90 reported for 1998 and 55 countries provided time series data
3 of which 42 provided time series data

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