Literacy: Challenges and opportunities for girls and women post-COVID

Literacy prize laureates and gender equality

Girls and women are ready. They are ready to learn and harness their talents for a brighter future. Massive strides have been made in girls’ and women’s education over the past years, yet a learning crisis persists. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated one of the root causes of gender inequality, especially girls’ access to quality education.

In the spirit of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we’ll share how former laureates of UNESCO International Literacy Prizes are continuously working to ensure gender equality in and through literacy learning in spite of unprecedented setbacks for girls and women.  

Aid Afghanistan for Education (AAE), winner of the 2018 King Sejong Literacy Prize, shares that since receiving the prize, their programme accelerated with the goal to expand in all provinces. Unfortunately, everything came to a halt in 2020 with the COVID-19 crisis and later in 2021 due to the political shift in Afghanistan.

“3.500 female learners are still at home. It is not clear if girls will be able to return to school under the current regime, nevertheless, there may be the possibility of online education for female learners,” shared Ms Hassina Sherjan.

In order to move towards achieving quality education, including quality literacy learning for girls and women, Ms Sherjan added: “We need innovation, commitment and persistence. This commitment should be continuous and free from any political alterations.”

The 2021 Confucius Literacy Prize laureate from Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire NGO GA-TIC, shared the challenges and opportunities that have been generated by the COVID-19 crisis in relation to gender equality in and through literacy learning stating that the COVID-19 allowed learners to familiarize themselves with the digital tool as a learning medium. Digital literacy enabled learners not only to use smartphones for communicating but also for accessing trainings. Women were able to self-train while taking care of household chores, facilitating gender relations.

Limitless Horizons Ixil (LHI), from Guatemala was one of the laureates of the 2021 King Sejong Literacy Prize. Their programme, Broadcasting Bilingual Stories: Promoting Interactive Literacy Programming, responded to challenges faced by female learners – girls and women – during the COVID-19 crisis by engaging youth and their families. “Our remote library programmes help motivate girls to continue their studies while incorporating families to ensure that education remains a priority in the home and families can understand its benefits”, shared Ms Katie Morrow, Executive Director of LHI.

Ms Morrow further mentioned, “We have definitely witnessed the impact that social norms and gendered expectations have had on girls’ and young women’s ability to study online and stay in school during the pandemic. Girls are especially susceptible to forgoing their education due to increased demands around the home, such as caring for younger siblings and taking care of household chores”.

Associação Progresso, from Mozambique won the King Sejong Literacy Prize in 2015 under the programme, Literacy in Local Language, a Springboard for Gender Equality. Ms Elisa Arão Mucavele said that the COVID-19 crisis impacted the programme dramatically, especially for girls and women. “Many girls were induced into forced unions. Even when the schools reopened, many girls did not go back to school”. On the other hand, Ms Mucavele stated that despite financial challenges for many households to have access to TV and mobile phones for learning, an opportunity that resulted from the COVID-19 was that the girls did not need to travel long distances to school, which in many cases, was an obstacle. 

Foundation Elche Acoge, from Spain, was the winner of the Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2018.

The programme offers learning the Spanish language and culture for migrants and has expanded since receiving the UNESCO award. However, the COVID-19 crisis affected people of foreign origin, especially women. Digital platforms were difficult to grasp and access for people who have insufficient knowledge of digital literacy, nor have a sufficient level of oral and/or written comprehension of the Spanish language to fulfill tasks.

The Citizens Foundation (TCF), from Pakistan was awarded the Confucius Prize for Literacy in 2017 for Aagahi, its non-formal adult literacy programme. Ms Amna Khalid shared how social norms and gender expectations have had an impact on girls’ and women’s ability to study online and return to school. TCF families often do not have internet-enabled phones and even if they do, streaming data is expensive. Pakistan also has a gender-based digital divide, so even if a family owns a device, young women and girls are not allowed to use it.

It is crucial that women are not left behind in the future of work. “Civil society should advocate for the successful implementation of government policies and strategies in favor of girls and women and ensure that they are gender sensitive,” Ms Mucavele affirmed.

On International Women's Day, let us go beyond celebrating the progress made towards achieving women's empowerment. Let us reflect on those accomplishments and further strive towards the advancements of gender equality worldwide.

The two UNESCO International Literacy Prizes are: The UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, Established in 1989, with the support of the Government of the Republic of Korea, which gives special consideration to mother language-based literacy development and the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, established in 2005 with the support of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, which gives special consideration to functional literacy, leveraging technological environments, in support of adults in rural areas and out-of-school youth.