UNESCO marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, under the banner of ‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’, commemorating five decades of global progress on literacy rates.  

There is much to celebrate. According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), regional and global literacy rates have improved steadily over the past 50 years, particularly among youth.

However, 758 million adults (aged 15 years and older), two-thirds of whom are women, remain illiterate. These figures are a reminder that renewed efforts will be needed in order to reach Sustainable Development Goals 4 and 5 and the Education 2030 targets.

The latest data, presented in a fact sheet and illustrated in the UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy, show remarkable progress on youth literacy. Young people in Africa and Asia, for example, are far more likely to be literate than they were 50 years ago, and in 2014, 91% of those aged 15 to 24 years had basic literacy skills, compared with 76% of those aged 65 years or older. In Southern Asia, more than twice as many young people have basic literacy skills (84%) than those in the oldest age group (39%).

There has also been a steady narrowing of the literacy gender gap worldwide, with women making more progress since the 1960s than men. Today, young women have a literacy rate that is 18 percentage points higher than the rate for elderly women, compared with a gap of 11 percentage points between younger and older men.

Young women continue to lag behind young men

Despite all of this progress, women aged 15 to 24 years still lag behind their male peers in many countries – a clear sign of the persistent challenges that continue to hold girls back.

The data in the new UIS fact sheet give us valuable baselines for the measurement of literacy progress and the identification of pitfalls, but they also reinforce the urgent need for greater investment in literacy and numeracy programmes around the world if the new SDG literacy goal is to be met by 2030.

To this end, the UIS is working with partners on several fronts to improve the quality of literacy data. The Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) will develop the methodologies needed to gather more nuanced data and the tools needed for their standardisation, to ensure that they are truly comparable.