Women remain overly affected by illiteracy, especially women in African countries. UNESCO reported in 2015 that while the global literacy rate for women aged 15 or older was estimated to be over 80%, female literacy in Africa was only estimated around 60%. This was also well below the 2015 estimated literacy rate for African men of just over 70% (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015).

Literacy projects aid social transformation and help to familiarise women with their social and economic rights. They further assist to reduce gender disparities and poverty. Illiterate women are less likely to be financially independent and participate in paid work. They thus struggle to accumulate the requisite social and financial capital to become economically independent. Furthermore, social concerns such as gender-based violence and women’s rights are negatively affected by female illiteracy. Information and knowledge, as well as access to information and communication technologies, are key to helping women understand their rights and to ensure that they are enacted. Without the ability to read, women are unable to access the information that enables them to secure even the most basic of human rights.

To overcome these problems, eight of the NEPAD Spanish Fund for African Women Empowerment projects addressed illiteracy issues among African women and engaged in adult literacy training. These projects reached more than 4000 women and girls in Africa and many of the attendees of the courses were adults who hadn’t received any prior education.

The literacy training provided in Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Ethiopia focused on the economic empowerment of the female participants. These interventions further helped to improve the women's self-confidence and independence, assisted them to participate and contribute meaningfully in society and in general provided the human capital enhancement required by the beneficiaries to open their own businesses and improve their employment prospects. These projects are clearly aligned to the aspirations set out in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which strives for an Africa where development is people-driven and the potential of its women and youth unleashed. The literacy projects likewise address the Strategic Objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action which calls for the eradication of illiteracy among women.

Key lessons learned from projects:

  1. Develop literacy skills in the lingua franca of the country in which literacy training is provided.
  2. Literacy initiatives should not only target young women and girls but also adult women.
  3. Develop and create opportunities for learning, sharing and constant engagement.

Develop literacy skills in the lingua franca of the country in which literacy training is provided

Developing literacy skills in the lingua franca of a country is vital due to the wide number of languages spoken. The total number of languages natively spoken in Africa is estimated to be between 1,250 – 2,100 (depending on the delineation of language versus dialect). It is therefore of paramount importance to develop the literacy and language skills of women in the lingua franca of their country to ensure effective communication between communities. The importance of this specification was highlighted during the ASMADE (Association Songui Manegre) project in In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where the importance of facilitating learning the French language became apparent, as French is indispensable for all economic, social and personal development in Burkina Faso.

Literacy initiatives should not only target young women and girls but also adult women

The high rate of functional illiteracy among adult women in Africa is partly a result of the preference of many families to rather educate male than female children. Contributing factors include economic and cultural barriers, which prevent girls and women from accessing education and the lack of political support to implement and sustain existing adult literacy education programmes.

The JOFA (Jewels of Faith Academy) provided extensive literacy skills training to young women from the Kpaduma community in Abuja, Nigeria. At the conclusion of the project, they recommended that future literacy programmes should be extended to empower parents, especially adult women. This is in recognition of the fact that adult women, because of their familial responsibilities, are more receptive to receiving training that will help combat poverty and improve familial living standards. The empowerment of adult women through literacy education also facilitates decreases in gender-based violence and improvements in numerous gender gaps, including the gap in income.

Develop and create opportunities for learning, sharing and constant engagement

The development of motivational strategies, creation of opportunities for learning, sharing, and constant engagement, and the need to provide day-care services were found to be the core lessons learned during the WOLPNET (Women of Liberia Peace Network) literacy training initiatives in Liberia.  These lessons were of importance as they formed part of individuals’ daily socio-economic concerns and were crucial for project success. Ensuring consideration of all the costs accrued by women in undertaking literacy training better enables project managers and training providers to accommodate and provide for barriers to learning that are specific to women.