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Attaining literacy worldwide remains a huge challenge. More than 100 million children have no access to school. This is equivalent to all the primary school children in Europe and North America combined. And 875 million adults, most of them women, cannot read or write. Families with illiterate mothers are generally larger, have poorer nutrition, poorer health and poorer education levels.
There is hope, however. Collective efforts to improve literacy rates have brought about change, especially for women and girls. UNESCO statistics show that in 1969, the year humans took the first step on the moon, four out of five women in Africa could not read or write. Today that percentage has been halved. Almost 80% of the world's population aged 15 years and over is now literate, including more women than ever before. And in just five years, the world population's illiteracy rate has fallen from 22.4 to 20.3%. If current trends continue, by 2010 the rate should be 16.5%.
The disparity between male and female literacy rates is greatest in Africa. CODE's programs there are striving to break down the obstacles to girls becoming readers. Sometimes all it takes are small thoughtful actions. For example, in Ethiopia libraries are adjusting their hours to accommodate the busy schedules of women and girls. In Tanzania, women teachers - who know local customs and can write from the female viewpoint - are learning to write books for children. And in Senegal, both boys and girls are expected to do chores at school now, giving the girls as much free time to enjoy the library as the boys.
This year, UNESCO's International Reading Association Literacy Prizewinner - for particularly effective contributions to literacy - is CODE's partner in Mozambique, Associaço Progresso. CODE has worked with Progresso since 1990. A non-governmental organization, Progresso emphasizes local culture and languages in all its learning materials.
Teachers and students across Canada know about Progresso. Around each Valentine's Day, schools devote many hours to CODE's Project Love, putting together packages of pencils, erasers, rulers and notebooks for children in developing countries. Last year they made up 61,255 kits and filled 641 teacher boxes that were distributed by Progresso to Mozambican schools.
Sometimes donors will ask if literacy programs really have an impact in developing countries. They want to know if their donations - which help CODE ship a half million books a year to the developing world as well as supporting local publishing ? actually help children learn to read and write, and if literacy can really help people break out of poverty.
The answer is that literacy changes lives - for the better. Reading and writing isn't a luxury. It's a weapon against poverty, hunger and disease. And, as we celebrate International Literacy Day, it's time for Canadians to answer the call for action and support literacy ventures such as Project Love www.codecan.org, their local libraries, and the worldwide Make Poverty History Campaign www.makepovertyhistory.ca.