World's women lag behind in literacy

The Education Beat

Report: The World Bank finds that many receive little or no education. A sociologist quotes a saying that educating women is tantamount to educating families.

September 19, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

READING AROUND the world is a feminist and civil rights issue. Here's why:

Of the estimated 125 million children not attending primary school in developing countries, two-thirds are girls.

Of the world's nearly 1 billion illiterate adults, two-thirds are women.

Enormous gaps exist between the educational attainment of the rich and of the poor within countries. In many, the majority of children from the poorest households get no schooling at all.

These startling figures are from a report of the World Bank, which is spending some $14 billion to help educate poor people in 87 countries. But it's a Sisyphean task, and only incurable optimists believe the international community will reach a goal of universal primary education by 2015.

African nations have the lowest enrollment rates, about 40 percent, according to the World Bank report. And while literacy rates were inching up in many parts of the world in the first half of the 1990s, 16 African countries, including Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia, had declining school enrollments.

Willie B. Lamouse-Smith, an authority on Africa at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, shakes his head over the bleak statistics. In his native Ghana, illiteracy rates are 38 percent for men and 64 percent for women.

There's plenty of blame to pass around, Lamouse-Smith says, but don't make the mistake of thinking the African literacy problems are rooted in the continent's post-colonial period.

"It was the policy of colonial governments to hold down African women by keeping them away from schooling," says Lamouse-Smith. "In most cases, girls' education didn't begin until after independence. But the remnants of colonialism are still propagated in Africa by Africans.

"The forces against literacy don't always come from the outside. The elite are sometimes part of the problem. They will be literate, but their house girls remain illiterate. It's an old story."

Governments and commerce operate in an official language, often English, while children learn to read in their native languages, says Lamouse-Smith. "That's good, but it's useless. You don't get connected to your government or to world affairs when your language is different."

Some have suggested mass literacy campaigns using computers and satellite technology, but Lamouse-Smith is a doubter.

"If you can't read and write now, giving you a computer won't do any good. What Africa needs is massive educational programs inside the classrooms in the official languages. This should be backed by a whole lot of good book reading and writing, and that would make a difference."

Lamouse-Smith has spent the better part of the 1990s collecting books, journals and typewriters from generous Marylanders and the UMBC library. Last year, he dispatched 250,000 volumes to a university in Uganda.

It hardly made a dent, the professor says. "So many African nations lack the resources to invest in the social infrastructure, and U.S. aid isn't a bottomless funding source."

One of Lamouse-Smith's heroes is James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey, a black African minister and integrationist from the early decades of the century who believed blacks and whites should work together to solve mutual problems. (Lamouse- Smith compares Aggrey with Martin Luther King Jr.)

But Aggrey also was an early feminist. On the importance of teaching girls to read, he said, "No race or people can rise half slave, half free. The surest way to keep a people down is to educate the men and neglect the women.

"If you educate a man, you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family."

Pub Date: 9/19/99

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