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Defeat Poverty

5 aspects of illiteracy to help your global literacy

Quelle: Elissa Bogos / Save the Children

Imagine not being able to read or write. Never being moved by a book. Never being able to decipher a street sign. Never knowing the full extent of ingredients in the food you were buying.

Or how about, never sending texts to your friends while walking down the street, never writing self-absorbed Facebook statuses and never being able to play Cards Against Humanity.

It’s hard to imagine because the ability to read and write is so foundational to life. On the flipside, illiteracy is a primary cause of poverty.

I recently came across a fascinating little book by Project Literacy, an organization that aims to promote universal literacy.

After reading some of its articles, I dove a little deeper into the subject. Here are some things I learned.

  • 775 million people in the world are illiterate. The countries with the highest illiteracy rates, between 70-80% of the adult population, are Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

  • lliteracy mostly affects women. Across the world, two-thirds of the illiterate are women. This is because boys are much more likely to be sent to school than girls while many areas of the world actively discourage or forbid girls from attending school. This is a major factor in perpetuating poverty because the more years of schooling a girl receives, the more her future income rises, and the less likely she will be pushed into early marriage and have kids.

  • US Children born into poverty are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers, opening an educational gulf that may never be closed.  

  • The illiterate are more likely to suffer from illness. Illiterate people generally exist on the margins of society in poverty. They may not have a broad awareness of disease and injuries and therefore may not seek out medical help when needed. They’re also less likely to have funds needed to get medical help, because jobs available to the illiterate are less common. And if they have a job, they may not be fully aware of workplace hazards. Even if they get health care, they may be unable to understand prescription directions. These barriers compound and create poverty.

  • Ensuring global literacy is everyone’s responsibility. Literacy is empowering, but someone can only become literate with the help of another person. Everyone who can read and write can point to the people in their life who taught and guided them, who opened up the world of literacy’s possibilities. Many people who are illiterate simply do not have anyone in their life who can teach them, making illiteracy a generational problem. It’s not their fault they do not receive the guidance. Therefore, it is up to all of us to make sure people without the resources and connections receive a robust education. Doing so not only gives them a much fuller life, but also improves society as a whole, creating more capable and independent citizens and a more informed public.


I loved to read as a little kid. I distinctly remember sitting on my family’s couch at 4 or 5 and happily, almost competitively, flipping through pages of my favorite Dinosaur book series alongside my brother.

I also love to read now. I can’t imagine a life without books and it’s tragic that for hundreds of millions of people that is life.

Illiteracy becomes harder to overcome as a person grows older, so it’s up to the global community to target children in the most illiterate countries and make sure they receive the teaching and tools needed to become lifelong readers, writers and learners. 

The first step is going to TAKE ACTION NOW to get world leaders to ramp up their commitments to education.