First Ladies and top officials address illiteracy in the region

Deena Douara
5 Min Read

DOHA: The need for innovation in tackling the problem of high illiteracy in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, with a special focus on reducing the gap between male and female literacy, was the focus of the opening ceremony of the first Literacy Challenges in the Arab Region conference which started Monday.

The conference is hosted jointly by Unesco and the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

Musa Bin Jafaar Bin Hassan, president of the Unesco General Conference, began his speech with some jarring statistics. He compared the “minute sum of $6 billion spent on education yearly to the $300 billion spent on publicity and commercial promotions and the $500 billion spent on cigarettes, or the $1 trillion spent on the military.

Her Highness Sheikha Mohaz Bint Nasser Al-Missned, who chairs the Qatar Foundation and the Unesco Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education, proposed an expansion of the definition of literacy to include health, IT, and media literacy in addition to reading and writing, all of which are critical for developing Arab societies.

“We can’t overcome [illiteracy] with beliefs. It requires innovation and imagination, she said, adding that the problem needed a more “holistic vision than the one previously adopted.

“Literacy is the very heart of a culture of quality and equality, for when people gain the power to decode their world they gain the power to affect changes to it, she said in a statement.

While Lebanon’s First Lady Andree Lahoud and Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva (hosting the next regional conference) both emphasized literacy as the first stage towards development and modernization, Syria’s first lady Asma Al-Assad’s remarks took a more political tone.

Continuing on the theme of multiple literacies, including technical, information, and Internet literacy, as well as developing the capacity to filter and screen information, Al-Assad stated: “If we have no capacity for that [literacy], we become an easy target for information sent in from other sources, yet we cannot understand that information … it becomes easier to manipulate us.

We can no longer remain undeveloped and dependent on others, she added.

To accomplish this, she says, we must go beyond traditional means of teaching literacy.

Sudanese author Tayib Salih drew on tradition to suggest that literacy is part of historical Islamic and Arab culture. In addition to recalling that the first verse of the Quran revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) begins with “Read, Salih also referred to the Battle of Badr where the Prophet asked literate prisoners of war to pay the ransom for their lives by teaching an illiterate person.

In the Arab region, about 58 million adults are illiterate, which constitutes 66.4 percent literacy rate. The majority of the illiterate, 66 percent, are women.

The conference is designed to improve literacy rates, especially within the countries with the worst rates such as Morocco and Mauritania, through presenting and discussing innovative literacy practices in the region.

Roundtables will include discussions of program delivery, policies, and assessment. Panels will also be presented on mother-child literacy, literacy for health and for economic self-sufficiency, and media literacy.

The conference is the first of a series of six regional conferences organized by Unesco under the framework of United Nations Literacy Decade, launched in 2003, and Unesco’s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment, both promoting literacy at international and regional levels.

The Qatar Foundation was founded in 1995 by the Emir of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, and is chaired by Sheikha Mozah. It is a private, non-profit organization which has created the Education City in Qatar that houses branches of five leading universities and a research and development center.

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