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Today, 8 September, has been designated as International Literacy Day, the day when the world focuses its attention on this most basic of linguistic skills. Despite the inevitability with which most of the world views literacy, an estimated 760 million adults across the globe remain unable to read (as of 2013). This is a figure many governments, unions and civil society organisations are working hard to reduce.

Gender, as with many development issues, plays a strong role in the likelihood of an individual’s literacy skills; UNESCO has identified that for every 100 literate men, there are 91 literate women. This figure drops to 74 women for every 100 literate men in low income countries and hovers at 76 women for every 100 literate men in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. As nearly half of Commonwealth countries are based in these two regions, gender parity is clearly of concern in terms of literacy in the network.

Youth literacy across the world was 91%, an impressive improvement over the past 25 years (up from 83%). While gender parity is better among youth literacy rates (at 96 girls for every 100 literate boys globally), sub-Saharan Africa struggles significantly behind all other regions in ensuring that girls achieve the same level of literacy as their male peers. With 86 literate girls for every 100 literate boys, this is a serious challenge for the region.

Literacy is a vital building block for the economic and democratic success of a country, as well as the healthy lives of its citizens. The National Literacy Trust found that in the UK, ‘those with functional literacy skills earn on average 16% more than those with lower literacy skills’. Interestingly, research from 2013, published by Cambridge University, found that in India ‘poverty and, crucially, illiteracy are much stronger predictors of poor public health than low average income [than wealth alone]’, suggesting that a ‘poor district can…enjoy relatively good public health if it has a high literacy rate.’ This may be true of other low and lower-middle income countries in the Commonwealth. Literacy also allows citizens to more meaningfully engage within the political process, supporting peace, tolerance and understanding.

In the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal agenda, the focus of literacy shifts from the binary division of literate versus illiterate to an understanding of literacy in degrees. This important development acknowledges that an individual can be able to read, but still be held back by poor literacy skills. For an example outside of the Commonwealth context, 85% of young people who are considered ‘juvenile offenders’ in the United States struggle with reading. In a high-income country, such statistics are staggering, and show the serious consequences of low literacy skills.

The Commonwealth must join the rest of the world to support the literacy initiatives of its citizens, both young and old. The peace, security, democracy, economic development and health of the network depend on it. There is no better day to catalyse these efforts than International Literacy Day.

Find out more about the work that the Royal Commonwealth Society is doing in education, including The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition, on our Youth & Education section.