Report on the Symposium UNESCO, 7 September 2018

Introduction by SI Director of Advocacy, Bev Bucur

“Reading is the greatest gift you can give a woman or girl because literacy opens the door to the world and is critical for achieving social and economic empowerment. 8 September, International Literacy Day, saw events take place around the world to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.

The theme this year focused on Literacy and Skills Development and the link between the two in the context of lifelong learning. Digital, technical and vocational skills gaps are an issue particularly for women and girls. Although they may have basic reading skills there may be no access to technology to increase computer literacy or to gain the skills required to enter the labour market. Digital technology is transforming ways in which people work, communicate and learn, making lifelong learning a necessity. Women often do not enter the labour market or must take time off to raise families, making it difficult to keep up with fast-paced technological advances.

What can we do as Soroptimists to support lifelong learning opportunities for women and girls?

Some excellent examples of Soroptimist work in the areas of skills development and literacy include Soroptimist International of Europe’s Book Buddies program. This program places books in the hands of children to increase access to books and promote literacy. When I visited schools in Kenya with President, Yvonne Simpson, the children proudly shared their book bags with us and talked about the books they received. Individual Soroptimist clubs continue to support this programme.

SIE actively promotes STEM careers for women. An example of this is SI Bucharest, Romania,  where members use their positions in secondary schools and colleges to mentor young women and encourage them to take classes to prepare themselves for STEM careers.

SIA has two programmes that support the educational advancement of women and girls. The Live Your Dream Award is a financial award for women who are the head of their households and faced obstacles in their lives and strive to obtain an education in order to support themselves and their families. During 2016-2017, 1,476 women received cash awards to assist them in completing their education.  12,265 girls participated in SIA’s Dream It Be It programme during 2016-2017.

There are many opportunities in our communities to help women and girls achieve the skills they need to achieve social and economic empowerment. As Soroptimists, we must work to ensure that women and girls have the opportunity to go to school, not only to achieve basic reading skills, but to receive training in computer literacy, and instruction in STEM fields. We must raise our voices to ensure that women have the same opportunities men and that they are included in decision making at all levels”.

A Report on the Symposium on International Literacy Day, UNESCO, 7 September 2018, by Marie Christine Gries

“Literacy has made significant progress in the world. The overall literacy rate reached 86.2% in 2016, and the youth literacy rate 91.4% But changes in the labour market, technological advances, and demographic trends have disrupted traditional patterns of access to the world of work and have created high job instability and new skill requirements in jobs. More and more young people are failing to enter the labour market. International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics reveal that more than 192 million people are now unemployed. Nearly one in seven 15-24 years old are now out of school and unemployed. Women are disproportionately affected: They are 26% less likely to participate in the global labour market than men and are less likely to find a job. In 2017, 82% of women were in precarious employment compared to 72% of men.

The situation is directly attributable to the insufficient level of education and the low literacy skills acquired by the literate, who also have shortcomings in reading, arithmetic and writing skills. The reading level of 2.10 billion adults aged 15 to 64 and 418 million young people aged 15 to 25 would be insufficient to adapt to changes in the work environment and to acquire the new skills required by technological advances.

Millions of learners complete formal education but leave school before the end of secondary school. 13% of young people would fall into this category on a global scale. Young women are three times more likely to be out of school and unemployed than young men. According to World Bank projections, people with low literacy skills are more and more likely to be confined to jobs without a future with a stable and low level of income throughout their lives. The phenomenon can only increase if a new literacy strategy is not implemented.

The new strategy advocates integrating literacy and skills development to improve access to employment. The combination of literacy and skills training needs to be adapted to the local labour market.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic remain fundamental but surveys in all countries reveal that employers’ needs include the following general skills: ability to communicate effectively, to work collaboratively, to learn quickly at work, to take autonomous decisions and solve problems.

In the past, an illiterate person could improve the skills needed for a job whilst remaining illiterate. Today literacy and competence are interdependent. Skills are an entry point into literacy and conversely, literacy is an opportunity to strengthen and expand skills.

The implementation of the new strategy implies cooperation between public authorities, employers and civil society. Education needs to move to workplaces, communities, families, the internet and other environments, out of formal education and promote lifelong learning. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, Education highlights the importance of linking learning to work.

Several points require vigilance:

  • The reinforcement of results by learning from the experiences, and the encouragement of the programmes that gave evidence (objective of the attribution of the prices of the literacy day)
  • Ensure equitable access and inclusion: the creation of specific programmes adapted to needs and lifestyles of groups such as ethnic and linguistic minorities, young people, rural populations and women and girls
  • Improve relevance to the world of work: identification of a specific professional sector, expression of needs by the learners themselves, approach training based on demand rather than supply
  • Strengthen partnerships between actors, public authorities, teachers, companies
  • Quality building: find incentives to motivate learners and reduce dropout rates and improve the quality of training. The impacts of a successful programme include a reduction in the rates of early marriages and the stigma attached to the distribution of work by sex, as well as female mobility.
  • Leverage digital technology: Harnessing the global proliferation of connected mobile devices. UNESCO has developed mobile learning solutions for the rural world.
  • Develop the good institutional environment for better results; have a comprehensive government approach, mobilize the private sector and streamline institutional arrangements, develop systems for recognition of skills and qualifications, develop funding systems that include all partners.


The literacy awards this year rewarded programmes in Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria and Uruguay, programmes combining literacy and skills development and developed by involving businesses, the public sector and civil society (NGOs).

Relevant for Soroptimist International – many clubs drive programmes to educate girls and illiterate adult women: however, new perspectives require attention, for instance, organising a literacy class simultaneously with workshops, giving skills in any craft trades or water and agricultural related practical knowledge in this way, we can ensure that girls at school can also acquire competences relevant to the local working market”.

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