Nearly one-sixth of the 5.9 billion people in the world cannot read or write, according to a survey published today by Unicef.
The study predicts that illiteracy rates will steadily grow into the next century because 1 of every 4 children in the poorest nations is now in school. More than half those denied educations are girls, Unicef, the United Nations children's fund, says in its annual report, "The State of the World's Children 1999." The study found worsening educational conditions in the former Soviet Union, where levels had been high.
Apart from deepening divisions between rich computerized societies and those without even the rudimentary tools of knowledge in the third world, the report says, illiteracy has a direct relationship to important health indicators and fertility rates. An overwhelming percentage of illiterates are in countries with high population growth, like India and Pakistan, where better education for women and children could significantly reduce other problems, the report says.
'A 10-percentage-point increase in girls' primary enrollment can be expected to decrease infant mortality by 4.1 deaths per 1,000, and a similar rise in girls' secondary enrollment by another 5.6 deaths per 1,000," the report says. "This would mean concretely in Pakistan, for example, that an extra year of schooling for 1,000 girls would ultimately prevent roughly 60 infant deaths."
Fertility drops sharply as education rises, Unicef says. In Brazil, the report found, illiterate women have an average of 6.5 children, and mothers with secondary-school educations have an average of 2.5 children.
Unicef and other groups that work with children say education should be guaranteed under the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. But the intentions of the treaty are overwhelmed by a host of problems, including economic crises in countries like Russia and Indonesia. Widespread ethnic conflict has made refugees of millions of children and destroyed their schools at a time when international aid for education projects is decreasing. Uprooted children are often turned into soldiers by military forces.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, is among the figures who are lobbying governments to add money for classrooms for refugees and communities where displaced people eventually return. Education often has to compete with more pressing immediate needs like food and shelter, although, although refugee experts agree that one of the most effective ways to create a sense of stability and normality among displaced children, many of them orphans, is to establish classrooms, however rudimentary.
Schooling is also often denied to young people because governments do not give schools a high priority or make it easy for families to send children. "Often when we interview street kids they say they are on the street because they were kicked out school," said Yodon Thonden, counsel in the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch, a rights group in New York. "Free education necessarily compulsory, and sometimes there are costs, which places education beyond the reach of many families, costs of things like books or uniforms or shoes."
In its survey Unicef found that formerly high educational levels were in "free fall" in the countries that made up the Soviet Union, as costs rise, unpaid or poorly paid teachers are demoralized and buildings become dilapidated.