On 8 September, to mark International Literacy Day, the Egyptian Agency for the Education of Adults (EAEA) held an event with its government and civil society partners to review progress made in spreading literacy.
“I think this year in particular a celebration was in order given the significant progress that is being made,” said EAEA head Mohamed Nassef.
According to official figures, in 2021 Egypt reached its lowest level of illiteracy in 45 years. According to Nassef, progress has been building up since 2017 and is set to continue until Egypt reaches zero illiteracy. “There is a firm commitment from the state and from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi personally to abolish illiteracy in Egypt. It is part of the New Republic concept that the president is promising,” Nassef said.
Today, women and men over 60-years-old have the highest illiteracy rates, at around 63 per cent. The level among those under 45 years is a little over 17 per cent. Progress has also been made reducing the gender imbalance that has traditionally limited access to education for women and girls. As of 2017, official figures show an improvement in the numbers of females benefiting from literacy programmes.
“I think it is safe to say that girls and women of all ages are showing remarkable commitment to the cause of literacy,” said Nassef. He points out that close to 80 per cent of those enrolling in literacy programmes are female. Earlier this year, the EAEA celebrated the successful embrace of literacy of an 87-year-old woman “despite the challenges of age and a health condition”.
Since the launch of literacy programme in Egypt in the 1950s and the establishment of the EAEA in 1991, Nassef said advancing literacy has been challenged by economic and social problems.
Economic reasons, especially the lack of resources required to send kids to school or the need to send children to the labour market, have often contributed to the exacerbation of illiteracy. The absence of legislation focused on literacy also allowed kids to drop school without any consequences. Meanwhile, Nassef notes, illiteracy contributes to higher poverty rates and compromises sustainable development.
However, says Nassef, “today literacy is not an option,” a fact reflected in the number of people enrolling in literacy programmes which reached an all time high of 756,000 during the past year.
“I am not just talking about individuals being able to acquire basic or even advanced writing and mathematics skills but about the need for the erasure of illiteracy to be coupled with some sort of vocational training to help those who join the literacy programmes make a new start,” he added. “Now is the time to re-introduce vocational training as part of the literacy programmes.”
Today’s literacy programmes do not necessarily require participants to attend classes at a specific venue. The EAEA sometimes trains literate workers in factories to enable them to help illiterate co-workers acquire reading and writing skills.
This approach, says Nassef, makes it easier for those who want to learn since they need not worry about transport to classes. “Actually, a key reason for illiteracy is often the lack of nearby education facilities,” he says, which is why some of the highest illiteracy rates are recorded in Upper Egypt.
“In recent years the state has been adopting strategies to fill in gaps.” One-class-room schools and the girls-only-schools have helped increase enrollment in school and “the more we make sure children go to school the more we face down illiteracy at its point of origin.”
Increasing the number and distribution of education facilities will not be enough to fast-track the move towards zero illiteracy, says Nassef who is convinced “we need legislation that will make literacy compulsory”. He points approvingly at a Ministry of Interior initiative to require basic reading and writing skills from all driving licence applicants. “Such initiatives will help overcome any hesitation to pursue adult education programmes,” he argues.
Incentives are also important. “Providing aid in kind or promising job opportunities for individuals who join literacy programmes will certainly help.”
Nor is it possible to overplay the role of civil society in promoting literacy. This, he explains, is not just about possible donations from businesses to literacy programmes, but “about individuals working within their own families and communities to promote and provide education”.
In the 1960s and 1970s, state radio and television had literacy programmes that were presented in a viewer-friendly way by Abdel-Badie Al-Kamhawi. “These programmes were very useful not only in providing basic literacy skills for free” but for making literacy attractive to many in the poorer and rural segments of the population.
What Al-Kamahwi offered in his programmes, says Nassef, was inspired by his personal experience of helping his own father to cross from illiteracy to literacy. “The concept of inter-generational work to spread literacy has inspired several EAEA initiatives targeting individuals who are unlikely to attend classes,” he adds.
Two initiatives operated by the EAEA — Be grateful (Rad Al-Gamil) and Door knocking (Tarq Al-Abwab) — encourage individuals to educate family and community members, bringing literacy programmes to the doorstep of those who cannot make it to literacy classes. “We also use IT to help deliver the content of literacy programmes, sending recorded classes, for example, to children of older people via email or smartphone apps,” says Nassef.
There is also a need to increase the budget for the literacy programme “from the current LE70 million”.
“This figure was recently increased from LE40 million but to work towards zero illiteracy we need a bigger budget from either state allocations or from the private sector and non-governmental donations,” says Nassef.
A strong media campaign to spread awareness not just of the benefits of literacy but also the disadvantages of illiteracy would be helpful in encouraging more people to come forward.
“If we really want to move towards high rates of development we absolutely have to make illiteracy something of the past,” says Nassef.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly