© 2013 Miro Roman

on literacy

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is the official source of data used to monitor education and literacy targets associated with Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals. The UIS collects data on youth and adult literacy through its annual survey on literacy and educational attainment. Adult literacy rates concern the population aged 15 years and older, while youth literacy rates cover the population between the ages of 15 to 24 years. The data are disseminated through the UIS Data Centre and featured in publications like the annual Global Education Digest. This fact sheet provides a summary of the main literacy statistics. As part of the EFA goals, the international community has pledged to improve adult literacy levels by 50% between 2000 and 2015. While the number of illiterate persons has fallen over the past decade, 775 million adults – 64% of whom are women – still lack basic reading and writing skills (see Table 1). In 2010, the global adult literacy rate was 84.1%, compared to 89.6% for youth.

Adult literacy rate, total 84.1%
Adult literacy rate, male 88.6%
Adult literacy rate, female 79.7%
Adult illiterate population, total 775.4 million
Adult illiterate population, female share 64.1%
Youth literacy rate, total 89.6%
Youth literacy rate, male 92.2%
Youth literacy rate, female 87.1%
Youth illiterate population, total 122.2 million
Youth illiterate population, female share 60.7%
Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, September 2012.

The lowest literacy rates are observed in sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia (see Figure 1). Adult literacy rates were below 50% in the following 11 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Haiti, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. In Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, the average adult and youth literacy rates were greater than 90% (see Figure 2). No regional averages are available for North America and Western Europe due to limited data coverage. It is important to note that regional averages can mask disparities at the country level. This is most apparent in sub-Saharan Africa, where the adult literacy rate ranges from 29% in Niger to 94% in Equatorial Guinea.

The region of South and West Asia is home to more than one-half of the global illiterate population (52%). In addition, 22% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa, 13% in East Asia and the Pacific, 6.5% in the Arab States and 4.7% in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is estimated that less than 2% of the global illiterate population live in the remaining regions combined. The Arab States and South and West Asia have made the greatest progress in improving adult and youth literacy over the past two decades (Figure 3). Between 1990 and 2010, the adult literacy rate in the Arab States rose from 55% to 75% and the youth literacy rate from 74% to 89%. Over the same period, the adult literacy rate in South and West Asia increased from 47% to 63% and the youth literacy rate from 60% to 81%. To a lesser extent, progress was also observed in all of the other regions. By 2015–the target year for Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals–two thirds of adults and three-quarters of youth in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to be able to read and write (Figure 3). Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to be at or near universal youth literacy. In the Arab States and South and West Asia, approximately nine out of ten young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 years are projected to be literate. Adult literacy rates are estimated to continue to rise in the coming years but are expected to remain below the youth literacy rate in nearly all regions. The global adult literacy rate is estimated to reach 86% by 2015 and the youth literacy rate 92%. More detailed analysis of current adult and youth literacy rates and trends from 1990 to 2015 are available in the report Adult and Youth Literacy, 1990-2015: Analysis of Data for 41 Countries, published by the UIS in August 2012.

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