International Literacy Day: the global inequalities of youth literacy

A woman reads a book in old train wagon converted into a café and shop in La Paz, Bolivia.

Over 750 million young people and adults lacked basic literacy skills in 2020. Image: REUTERS/David Mercado

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • While global literacy rates are improving, over 763 million young people and adults still lack basic skills, UNESCO says.
  • International Literacy Day on 8 September highlights the importance of literacy for dignity and a more sustainable society.
  • Accessible and inclusive learning is a core component of the World Economic Forum’s Education 4.0 framework.

Despite the steady progress made on global literacy rates over recent decades, more than 763 million young people and adults lacked even basic skills in 2020. And the pandemic, other crises, and widening inequalities are hampering progress.

Literacy rates around the world are uneven – and in many low- and middle-income countries are worsening. The proportion of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries who were unable to read and understand simple text increased from 57% in 2019 to 70% in 2022, according to data from UNESCO.

It's against this backdrop that World Literacy Day takes place on 8 September, reminding the world of the importance of literacy both as a matter of dignity and also for its role in helping shape a more sustainable society.

More than 85% of the world's illiterate youth live in South Asia and Africa.
South Asia and West and Central Africa account for by far the biggest share of illiterate youth. Image: UNICEF

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Decades of steady progress - but a divide persists

Literacy rates reached 92% in 2020, climbing from 87% since 2020. During this time, the gender gap between the proportion of men and women who were literate also narrowed. But it is not closed – young women's literacy rate is still two percentage points below that of men.

There are also significant regional divides – South Asia, West and Central Africa, and Eastern and Southern Africa account for 87% of illiterate youth aged 15 to 24 globally. In some of these regions, the gender gap is wider – South Asia and West and Central Africa each have around 4 million more young women than men who are unable to read.

The longest school closures of the pandemic.
Several countries faced full or partial school closures of over a year and a half as a result of the pandemic. Image: Statista
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COVID-19's lasting legacy

It is widely acknowledged the pandemic had a far-reaching impact on literacy and education that will continue to be felt for years to come. Millions of children around the world had their education disrupted by full or partial school closures, with younger and more marginalized children facing the greatest loss, UNICEF says.

In several Brazilian states, for example, around two-thirds of children in grade 2 are off-track in reading, up from half of children pre-pandemic. Across Brazil, 1 in 10 students aged 10-15 reported they are not planning to return to school once their schools reopen, according to UNICEF figures published in 2022.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, schoolchildren are up to a year behind where they should be and up to 500,000 of them reportedly dropped out of school altogether between March 2020 and July 2021.

The organization has described COVID-19's impact as "nearly insurmountable".

Studying COVID-19's impact on education.
Many countries are investigating the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on students. Image: Statista

A new education agenda

The impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt for years to come. It is estimated to have led to an average schooling loss of more than six months, which is thought will reduce lifetime incomes by 3.9%, according to the World Economic Forum’s Catalysing Education 4.0 report. This global impact is projected to be up to $17 trillion.

Accessible and inclusive learning is a core component of the Forum’s Education 4.0 framework, shifting from learning that's only available to those with access to school buildings to learning that’s available for all.

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