Last Friday, September 8 marked International Literacy Day. On November 17, 1965, UNESCO proclaimed September 8 as International Literacy Day to highlight the importance of literacy to all individuals, communities and societies.
Yet today, nearly 52 years later, UNICEF, the UN arm tasked with the aim of spreading education to children worldwide, has said there has been little if no progress made in improving access to education to children in the poorer regions, notably in South Asia, West Asia (Middle East) and sub-Saharan Africa where there are still 123 million school-age children without schools.
UNESCO reports over 75% of the world’s 781 million illiterate adults are found in South Asia, West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa. Women represent almost two-thirds of all illiterate adults globally.
According to UNESCO, there are around 1 billion non-literate adults in the world. This 1 billion persons represent approximately 26% of the world’s adult population. Unfortunately women make up two-thirds of all non-literates.
Though South Asia - that is the SAARC region - is among the areas demarcated as having the highest illiteracy rates, two countries in the SAARC region stand out having exceptionally high literacy rates worldwide.
Maldives with a literacy rate of 99% and Sri Lanka with 92%.
Yet at the time Sri Lanka received independence from Britain in 1946, the literacy rate in the country stood at a mere 57.8%, with female literacy being 43.8% while male literacy was 70.1%.
Sri Lankans can justly take pride in the fact that in a little over a 60-year-period, despite being in the lower income group of countries, it was able to achieve a literacy rate of 92% .
The feat is all the more creditable as while the global literacy rate for all people aged 15 and above is 86.3%, Sri Lanka has achieved a higher than 90% literacy rate despite development in the country being disrupted by a near 3-decade-long civil war literacy and two insurgencies.
Despite these problems and despite over 20% of the country living below the poverty line, literacy rates in the country did not fall. We can take pride in the fact that that despite all difficulties Sri Lanka’s children were not cut off from receiving an education
However, we have still some way to go. Adult illiteracy (the total number of adults over 15 years-old, who cannot both read and write a simple statement in their everyday lives) has not been eradicated from our midst. According to the ‘Ask Yodatai’ data base adult illiteracy in Sri Lanka fell gradually from 1.3 million number in 2001 to 1.15 million number in 2015, it means nearly a twentieth of our population is still illiterate. And this is a shame.
An interesting point is how we did manage to achieve a feat of bringing down illiteracy figures in the country from a near 43% to less than 8%.
The answer lies in the changes brought about to the education system in the aftermath of independence, in the form of the C.W.W. Kannangara reforms of 1943 which introduced the system of free education and the ushering in of a system that did away with the earlier two-tiered education system under which fee-levying ‘English medium’ schools catered to the country’s elite, while a system of ‘vernacular schools’ catered to others.
The Kannangara reforms introduced ‘Swabasha’ or first language into the school system under which it was compulsory for all students to be educated in the ‘mother-tongue’. These reforms ushered in a system of education based on merit and opened education up to all Sri Lanka’s children irrespective of race, caste, gender or religion.
Even today, nearly two decades after, a fee-levying system of education was brought back by President Jayewardene’s government nearly four decades ago, the policy of free education in the country via fully government-run schools called ‘government schools’ continues.
World Bank statistics show government allocation on education which decreased between 2009 and 2014 from 2.054% of the GDP to a low of 1.497% in 2012, increased once again in 2015 to 2.17 of the GDP.
While certain sections of society continue to raise fears that the country’s system of free education is under threat via the introduction of a private medical college, facts reveal otherwise. Free education was least supported during the years between 2009 to 2014. During those years’ allocations for education as a percentage of the GDP dropped significantly, but the system prevailed.