REMARKS TO THE INTERNATIONAL WOMEN IN BUSINESS (IWIB)
INTERNATIONAL LITERACY DAY LUNCHEON
SEPTEMBER 8, 2023
Do you remember when you first learned how to read? That transformative light bulb moment when you recognized the letters and could sound out the words intelligibly? When the words that emerged from your tiny lips represented something you understood? When the sequence of words taught you something new or transported you to another place? And how about when you learned how to write? Your little fingers grasping a pencil and forming letters? It felt like magic!
Or, at least, it did to me.
I was never a sporty kid. I was also a bit shy and never quite felt part of “the gang.” So, when I learned to read at five, a whole new universe opened for me. So much so that I preferred to escape in a book rather than play outside at recess with my classmates. The local library became my second home, and I checked out at least a dozen books at a time. Judy Blume was my favorite author. As a teenager, I devoured magazines and read the New York Times every day, discovering new people, places, and things. My imagination ran wild, and I began writing poems, short stories, and eventually a novel or two or three or four!
The ability to read and write made this all possible. It’s probably a skill that all of us in this room are very fortunate—and privileged—to take for granted. However, literacy challenges persist around the globe. For example, the pandemic disrupted education and learning opportunities for many, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Seven hundred sixty-three million adults and young people still lack basic literacy skills. Two-thirds of them are women.
Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006), once said:
“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”
Annan gave this speech on International Literacy Day in 1997. Still, the number I shared with you shows that we still have a long way to go in achieving the global commitment of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities by 2030, as stated in the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) of the United Nations.
This year’s International Literacy Day theme, “Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies,” highlights literacy’s importance in addressing the challenges of our rapidly changing world, such as climate change, digital transformation, health crises, and social inequalities.
Here are some other interesting facts. The literacy rate of a country is the percentage of people aged 15 who can read and write. Many of us in this room are foreigners who moved to Sweden and learned to read, write, and speak the language, giving us invaluable advantages professionally and personally in this society. Literacy is a priority in Sweden, which boasts a 99% literacy rate. However, two of our Nordic neighbors, Finland and Norway, have achieved 100%, so we can still improve 😊! With the immigration and integration challenges facing Sweden, Swedish-language literacy is more important than ever to foster inclusion and open the doors of opportunity for newcomers.
It should be noted that European countries have the highest literacy rates, while sub-Saharan Africa (Niger 19%) and the Middle East (Afghanistan 38%) have the lowest literacy rates. Poverty, lack of access to education, and cultural norms prioritizing traditional practices over formal education contribute to this disparity. Educational systems are also underfunded and understaffed, leading to a shortage of qualified teachers and limited resources for students. Countries facing political instability and conflict hinder their ability to provide education for their citizens. Low literacy rates have significant global ramifications in addition to social and economic consequences, hampering a country's progress and restricting individuals’ ability to access better-paying jobs, participate fully in society, and make informed decisions about their health and well-being.
Literacy is often thought of in its most simplistic sense—the ability to read and write. But literacy is so much more than that. It also involves understanding, analyzing, using, and engaging with information. These are critical skills in the age of increasing economic competition, dwindling resources, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology such as AI.
The benefits of literacy cannot be overstated. It lifts individuals out of poverty and enriches their lives. It creates opportunities for people to develop skills to help them provide for themselves and their families. Literacy also improves the development of the wider community, facilitates employment, and allows the wider economy and society to thrive. It encourages free speech and protects democracy. Moreover, it reduces infant mortality rates and directly affects an individual’s physical and mental health.
Perhaps most relevant to the IWIB community, being literate empowers women and girls, breaking the cycle of illiteracy and improving self-esteem, enabling them to become economically productive and independent. A mother’s reading level is the highest predictor of their child’s future academic success, outweighing family or neighborhood income factors. Women’s literacy is a counterpoint to the socio-economic challenges that might otherwise curb academic potential.
I want to finish by reiterating that LITERACY IS A FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHT. It empowers individuals, communities, and societies to achieve their goals and aspirations. Furthermore, literacy cannot be taken away from you; it can be improved but never removed. Literacy is our unique superpower!
· Please share your memories of learning how to read and/or what literacy means to you.
· What are some challenges to literacy in the age of smartphones and technology?
· Please share your thoughts about what we can do individually and as a society to