Image: Courtesy of UNESCO
Image: Courtesy of UNESCO

This coming Monday (September 8, 2014) is International Literacy Day. Sponsored by UNESCO, the goal of this annual event, which has been celebrated since 1966, is to “mobilize international public opinion” and solicit support for literacy activities that help children and adults lead more vital and informed lives. This year’s theme is “Literacy and Sustainable Development.”

Although rates of illiteracy are dropping, the challenge remains: Some 781 million people around the globe are illiterate, according to UNESCO, and nearly two-thirds of this group are women. “The lowest literacy rates are observed in sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia.”

Boosting literacy is critical. As former UN Secretary Kofi Annan said in 2005, “Literacy is a key lever of change and a practical tool of empowerment on each of the three main pillars of sustainable development: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

Literacy, Annan said, is a major tool that can help end poverty, expand job opportunities, advance gender equity, protect the environment, and promote democratic participation. “A literate home environment is a boon to child development, having a positive impact on how long girls and boys stay enrolled in school and how effectively they learn.”

The day will be celebrated worldwide, with a central event in Dhaka where the Bangladeshi government and UNESCO will host an International Conference on girls and women’s literacy.

In addition, a report features the winners of UNESCO’s 2014 International Literacy Prizes, which were awarded to projects in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ecuador, South Africa, and Spain.

“We want a world where everyone can participate in the destiny of their societies, gain access to knowledge and enrich it in turn,” Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general, writes in the report.

“To succeed, we must also change the traditional approach of literacy programmes to encompass, beyond reading and writing in the narrower sense, broader skills with regard to consumption and sustainable lifestyles, the conservation of biodiversity, poverty reduction, disaster risk reduction as well as civic participation. In these ways, literacy programmes can unlock their full transformative potential.”

Local Celebrations in Boston and other U.S. Cities

In Boston on Monday, there will be an International Literacy Day Book Club meeting from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Uphams Corner Library branch for children ages 6 to 12, according to the Boston Public Library calendar.

In an article on its website, Perkins, the renowned Watertown, Ma., school for students who are blind, notes “According to the United Nations Development Program, the literacy rate for people with disabilities is 3 percent with the literacy rate for women and girls with disabilities as low as 1 percent.” The article goes on to explain how Perkins worked with the United States Agency for International Development to bring more braillers to Africa.

On Monday, in Washington, D.C., the Center for Universal Education at the think tank Brookings will host a discussion in honor of International Literacy Day to “discuss what we know about the changing world young people are growing up in and the skills and literacies they will need to thrive.”

The discussion will cover “how education interventions can help young people acquire these skills and examine how good practices are or are not being scaled… the event will present a variety of perspectives on 21st century learning drawing from examples in the US and internationally.”

And finally, the International Reading Association is teaming up with NASA and Story Time From Space, to celebrate International Literacy Day with the “Lift Off to Literacy” campaign.

The campaign website urges, “On September 8, 2014, launch your students’ literacy habit by devoting an additional 60 seconds of literacy activities each day for 60 days.” Teachers can also sign up to get a Lift Off to Literacy kit that has classroom activities for students ages 5 to 18.

The International Reading Association is a “nonprofit, global network of individuals and institutions committed to worldwide literacy.” And Story Time in Space films astronauts in space reading children’s books.

So join the worldwide celebration and promote it on social media, because as astronaut Kjell Lindgren says in a Lift Off to Literacy campaign video, “Reading is like rocket fuel.”