This year marks 50 years of International Literacy Day, celebrated around the world for the empowering force of literacy as a foundation for human rights and dignity. Literacy is vital for poverty eradication, gender equality and more inclusive and sustainable societies.
Literacy is more than just reading, writing and counting abilities. It is the use of this ability to improve the quality of life for ourself and others around us. Literacy enables us to understand and communicate effectively, to live peacefully, to think and to contribute towards societal and national development.
This year’s International Literacy Day theme, “Reading the Past, Writing the Future”, connects the 2000-2015 Education for All achievements with the promises of the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda.
According to the 2015 UNESCO Institute for Statistics report, globally there were approximately 124 million 6- to 15-year-old children and adolescents out of school, including 25 million children who had not even begun primary school in 2013.
Also the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report 2015 informs that during 2005-2014 approximately 758 million adults, of which more than 60 per cent were women, were illiterate. In other words, one in six adults remains illiterate in the world today. We know that illiteracy remains synonymous with exclusion and poverty. The International Literacy Day reminds us of the current challenges and encourages us to seek innovative solutions to further boost literacy.
In Cambodia, despite the remarkable progress in increasing access and improving quality of education services over the last decade, challenges in both fronts remain. For example, the 2016 Education Congress Report shows persisting challenges in-terms of right-age admissions in Grade 1, increasing repetition in primary and stagnating enrolments rate and high drop-out rates at the secondary levels. The drop-outs are a concern because we know from the experiences that those who drop out, particularly at the primary level, are likely to lack minimum literacy and numeracy skills.
Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen remarked: “Literacy skill if not practised, gets lost”, while launching the National Literacy Campaign 2015, highlighting the risk that if dropouts do not practise reading and writing then they are likely to lose these skills again, placing themselves again in the group of illiterates.
The Ministry of Education Youth and Sport is implementing targeted policy strategies to promote access among children and youth to education and to reduce their dropout from school, as well as to promote literacy rates among youth and adults. At the beginning of each school year the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport organises enrolment campaigns to bring all children to school. The ministry has introduced literacy teaching and reading methodologies, including early-grade reading assessment and the early-grade mathematics assessment to push for improved quality of learning, especially in Khmer and mathematics.
To inspire a reading culture in society, the government has endorsed March 11 as National Reading Day. The ministry is taking the drop-out issue, particularly at the lower secondary level, very seriously. To address this, a student-counselling program is being piloted in Battambang province that will be expanded nationwide in the coming years.
With continued efforts there has been steady improvements in adult literacy rates over the decades. According to the 2014 Cambodian Socio-Economic Survey (published by Ministry of Planning in October 2015), overall literacy rate increased from 75.6 per cent in 2008 to 78.1 per cent in 2014 and the female literacy rate was 71.8 per cent. The survey also shows about 14 per cent gap between women to men, and 11 per cent gap between urban to rural area.
To address the adult illiteracy imbalances, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has been working with UNESCO to promote literacy in the country through the Capacity Development for Education for All program since 2010 through technical support in strategic policy-making, institutional and professional capacity-building, research, monitoring and evaluation as well as advocacy activities. One of the examples being the Country Literacy Acceleration Plan 2013-15 and the implementation of National Literacy Campaign 2015 nationwide. As a result, the Ministry organised 3,250 literacy classes, helping 66,642 adults, of which 71 per cent were women, become literate.
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport together with relevant ministries, local authorities, UNESCO and other partners are celebrating the 2016 International and National Literacy Day today in Pursat with the theme of “Literacy Contributes to Increased Family Income”.
Thanks to the continuous advocacy efforts, there is a growing realisation about the importance of literacy and its linkages with employment among the Cambodian population. For example, last year a literacy class learner in Kampong Chhnang said: “Many factories in Kampong Chhnang do not accept workers who cannot pass a basic reading and writing test. After the literacy program, many of them passed and are working in factories”.
Learning from the National Literacy Campaign and continuing the efforts in advancing lifelong learning opportunities for all, the ministry and UNESCO are engaging Ministry of Women Affairs SIPAR, Smart Telecom and other national and international partners to introduce a literacy package for illiterate adult workers, particularly women.
The project, supported by UNESCO-Malala Fund for Girls’ Right to Education, aims to enable young women and girls working in garment factories to acquire basic literacy skills to improve their daily work communication, performance and productivities. This program will start in four factories in 2016 in Phnom Penh and will be expanded to more factories in 2017.
As encouraged by Samdech Thecho Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry and UNESCO would like to invite the factories to join us in organising literacy classes for the workers.
In addition to the literacy program for adults, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNESCO are in the process of developing an ICT-based flexible online learning program for out-of-school youth to complete basic education (lower secondary) equivalency. The Ministry and UNESCO are engaging specialised government agencies, development partners, NGOs and the private sector in these efforts. The introduction on-line learning modality is expected to address the learning needs of out-of-school youth and young adults, especially those who had to seek employment without completing basic education. The program will enable the interested learners to complete basic education while continuing their work and improve the overall basic education completion rate in the country.
Today, as we celebrate the 2016 International and National Literacy Day, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNESCO would like to thank the government ministries, development partners and civil society as well as all the private sector for the continued support and cooperation in promoting literacy in Cambodia. To address the challenges ahead, we would like to call for active engagements with innovative approaches from all to ensure that Cambodia is one of the first ASEAN nation to accomplish the SDG 2030 Education Goal.
Hang Chuon Naron is the Cambodian minister of education, youth and sport. Anne Lemaistre is the UNESCO representative in Cambodia