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How Did Southeast Asia Achieve 99% Literacy?

To mark International Literacy Day on September 8, we look at literacy facts and figures, both worldwide and closer to home in Southeast Asia.

Literacy Worldwide

In Southeast Asia there are reasons to celebrate as our literacy rates rank second-highest in the world. Other regions are not so well off.

According to the UNESCO’s Global Literacy Rates of 2016, 750 million adults between the ages of 14 and 64 were illiterate. Of those 277 million were men, 473 million were women, accounting for 63%.

The outlook is brighter, however, for youth aged 15 to 24 who globally were on average 91% literate – 93% male, 90% female. Still, of the 102 million unable to read or write 57% were women.

These figures are a huge improvement compared to older generations. Out of the 141 million aged over 64 who were illiterate, 67% were women.

Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southern Asia – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh – have the poorest literacy, linked to both poverty plus past and current traditions that have excluded women from education.

Central Asia, Europe and North America have full literacy for their youth, while Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, according to the statistical categories, are barely lagging behind with 99% literacy. This represents an almost 20-point rise since 1990.

Progress in Southeast Asia

Despite these welcome statistics for our region, there is still some work to do in countries where there is room for improvement.

The UNESCO figures give Laos the lowest literacy rate in Southeast Asia coming within the 50-59% bracket, while Cambodia and Myanmar score 70-79%. However, these are at variance with ASEAN’s statistics on adult literacy.

As of 2014, according to ASEAN, every member state in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV), has over 75% literacy in its adult population aged 15 and over, including older generations.

This high level of literacy is due to a decade and a half of concerted effort to improve access to education.

Over the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the ASEAN net enrolment ratio for primary school rose from 83 to 96, with a target of 100 still to be achieved. Up to 2015 only Singapore had reached the target.

The figures are further split to show that CLMV have achieved the greatest improvement.

Beginning at 62 out of 100 children enrolled in primary school in 1990, the four countries collectively achieved 98 out of 100 by 2015. The Philippines lag behind with 91, followed by Cambodia at 94.

Looking at the older age group of 15- to 24-year-olds, the higher level of literacy achieved through increased numbers in primary school education is impressive. Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore boast 100% literacy in this age group.

Every other country ranks in the mid- to high-90s. Cambodia at 94% can rightly be proud of its policies considering its starting point in 1990 was 65%.

Striving Towards 100% Literacy

In Cambodia the work continues. In 2016 its Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports launched the country’s first ever National Reading Day.

Aided by donations from the Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia Programme, more children’s books are now available in Khmer.

Books for Asia has also initiated Let’s Read! Using innovative digital applications, books are available via an app or on computer.

There is even a pioneering translation platform that can convert and adjust international books into a child’s mother tongue with culturally relevant content.

The huge progress made fighting illiteracy in our region and the outlook for the future are big reasons for ASEAN countries to celebrate this International Literacy Day.

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