3.4 Language literacy and women’s empowerment – drawing the links

Illiteracy inhibits human development, and its eradication is the cornerstone of any developmental process for women and men of all ages. The term illiteracy primarily means the inability of a person to read or write. Improving adult literacy levels by 50 per cent by 2015, especially among women, was set as one of the objectives of the UNESCO Education World Forum in Dakar in 2000.31

Women constitute an estimated two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population. Illiteracy is a major obstacle to women’s empowerment. The negative impact of illiteracy is manifested in the huge divide between literate and illiterate women in almost every aspect of life: personal and family, health status, social life, economic life and political life. Conversely, literacy programmes can have a very positive impact on the personal, family, community, social and political lives of poor women.

Literacy programmes that combine literacy with basic business skills can be an effective way to keep a programme relevant to women’s day-to-day lives. Literacy is important for social development, both in terms of inputs and outputs. Literate adults are more capable of understanding and upholding human rights when they can better participate in democracy and political processes. At least one study links literacy with reduced family size. That is, by enabling women to use contraception more effectively, literacy empowers them to control their sexual lives.32

Language literacy makes a difference in a woman’s life and, consequently, in the life of her family -- especially when it comes to health issues.33 Women who can read are more motivated to participate in the election process, whether as an electoral candidate, a team member of a candidate, or as a voter. There are a number of practical examples of communities becoming more economically and socially engaged once they became literate:

  • The Vagla Community in northern Ghana began to see an increase in involvement in the political affairs of the community.
  • The Bimoba, also in Ghana, began to organize into cooperatives and to do long-term economic planning.
  • The Pez of Colombia have organized their own education committee to do long-term educational planning.
  • In the Philippines, newly literate women utilized their literacy skills in opening bank accounts and managing their money more knowledgeably.
  • In India, newly literate women qualify for desirable jobs.

Illiterate women are keen to become literate and acquire ICT skills. A study conducted with 40 women (IKRAA participants, see project IKRAA in case studies) with newly acquired literacy skills found that illiterate women were keen to acquire literacy skills for many reasons:

  • For their own self esteem. Literacy meant that they would be become the equals of their husbands and even their children;
  • In order to access the Internet. They felt left out of a whole new world that they knew existed but could not access;
  • In order to be able to read and send text messages;
  • To feel empowered by becoming literate. It meant that they could read signs and find their way, and they could sign their names on government or business documents and acquire jobs;
  • To feel more in control of their future.

UNESCO recognizes that "an educated person is better equipped to handle all of life’s challenges, from finding work to avoiding diseases."34 When an illiterate woman becomes literate, the potential for positive individual and social transformation grows dynamically. Such women subsequently improve their job and employment opportunities and are empowered in their communities.

The negative impact of illiteracy on the families of illiterate women is also a key consideration. Families of illiterate women are caught up in a generational cycle of underdevelopment, in terms of lack of education, poor health and poverty.

Adult literacy programmes in a woman’s “mother tongue” can begin to break that cycle. Moreover, once literate, women can move on to access other educational opportunities. This is especially true among the rural poor, who have some of the highest illiteracy rates.35

Newly literate mothers:

  • Express motivation to learn more;
  • Show a tendency to seek and take jobs that require literacy skills and that were not previously available to them, enabling them to better support their families;
  • Convey the importance of literacy to their children, motivating them to seriously pursue their education;
  • Become role models for other women to seek literacy lessons and skills.

Literacy has also proved to have positive implications for women’s economic status. Being literate enables women:

  • To make wiser economic decisions concerning their daily lives;
  • To undertake simple business activities taken for granted by many literate  people; and
  • To increase their self-esteem and confidence in their business transactions.


31UNESCO - Education World Forum, Dakar April 26 -28, 2000


33A report on Literacy & Women's Health by the NGO Proliteracy Worldwide http://www.proliteracy.org/NetCommunity/Document.Doc?id=36 concludes as a result of working with one million women on literacy eradication programs in USA, and 48 developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that high rates of literacy are typically found in regions that demonstrates high rates of infant mortality, low age expectancy and poor nutrition.

34Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) 2006 – 2015, UNESCO 2007, p.3 http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001529/152921e.pdf

35For more details, see the UNESCO 2005 advocacy brief for Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls and Women: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001420/142079e.pdf . See also UNESCO Report 2007 on Mother Tongue-based literacy Programmes in Asia Region: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001517/151793e.pdf