Literacy should be understood within a rights-based approach and among principles of inclusion for human development. The rationale for recognising literacy as a right is the set of benefits it confers on individuals, families, communities and nations. Literacy is a right. It is implicit in the right to education. It is recognised as a right, explicitly for both children and adults, in certain international conventions.

It is included in key international declarations:

  • 1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    • 1966: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
    • 1966: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • 1960: Convention Against Discrimination Education
  • 1975: Persepolis Declaration – ‘Literacy is not an end in itself. It is a fundamental human right’.
  • 1979: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • 1989: Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly recognises literacy not just education
  • 1990: The World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand)
  • 1993: Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action emphasises the use of human rights – informed education as a means of combating illiteracy.
  • 1997: Hamburg Declaration: ‘Literacy, broadly conceived as the basic knowledge and skills needed by all in a rapidly changing world, is a fundamental human right’ (Resolution 11, UNESCO)
  • 2003: UNESCO round-table report Literacy as Freedom: literacy must be understood within a rights-based approach and among principles of inclusion for human development
  • 2005: UNESCO B@bel Initiative

Literacy has been recognised not only as a right in itself but also as a mechanism for the pursuit of other human rights, just as human rights education is a tool for combating illiteracy.

Literacy, besides being a fundamental human right, is a foundation not only for achieving Education for All but, more broadly, for achieving the overarching goal of reducing human poverty. And yet, 140 million adults in sub-Saharan Africa lack the basic learning tools to make informed decisions and participate fully in the development of their societies.

In addition to being a right in itself, literacy allows the pursuit of other human rights. It confers a wide set of benefits and strengthens the capabilities of individuals, families and communities to access health, educational, economic, political and cultural opportunities. Yet, on average, less than sixty per cent of the total adult population in sub-Saharan Africa can read and write with understanding – one of the lowest adult literacy rates in the world. The rates are below forty per cent (the supposed threshold for rapid economic growth to take place) in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, the Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone.


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