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EGYPT: Population Growth Overtakes Literacy Rise

Cam McGrath

LUXOR, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - Literacy programmes are teaching millions of Egyptians to read, but are struggling to keep up with the country’s high population growth.

“Egypt is one of the most challenging countries for any literacy programme,” a literacy programme administrator at Catholic relief agency CARITAS told IPS. “You can’t afford to step off the pedal for a minute.”

One in every four Egyptians is illiterate. Despite free education and long- running literacy programmes, the number of illiterates has changed little in over two decades. Nearly 17 million adult Egyptians can neither read nor write, according to recent government data.

Development experts prefer to see the glass half full. Ghada Gholam, an education programme specialist at UNESCO Egypt, has no illusions about the extent of the problem, but says progress in reducing Egypt’s illiteracy rate should not be overlooked.

“In percentage terms literacy rates have improved a lot over the past 10 years, though in actual numbers they (illiterates) have increased. And this is directly related to population growth,” Gholam says. “There are lots of successful efforts, but with the increase in the population growth it is really difficult to decrease the number of illiterates.”

Egypt’s population of 80 million is growing at 1.76 percent a year. The strongest growth is among the rural poor – those most inclined to chose immediate financial security over the long-term benefits of education.

Despite free, mandatory education for children ages 6 to 15, parents in poor communities often remove their kids from the education system to help work at home or in the fields.

“School enrolment is free, but parents don’t want to spend money on transport, private lessons or textbooks,” says Ayman Tawdros, who supervises CARITAS literacy programmes in the southern Egyptian governorate Luxor. “If the children go to school they can’t work, and they are perceived as a financial burden on the family.”

The dropout rate is highest among girls. Tawdros says parents are less willing to invest in their daughters than their sons because they believe that by their late teens the girls will likely “marry off and move away.”

Education specialists say the pressure on girls increases significantly after puberty.

“Once a girl hits a certain age, especially in countries where there’s early marriage, her chances of being pulled out of school increase,” says Diane Prouty of the Girls’ Improved Learning Outcomes (GILO), a USAID-funded project to increase girls’ access to quality education in rural Egyptian communities. “In addition, girls spend more hours doing housework and chores than boys, so they have less time to study or sleep.”

Women account for 69 percent of illiterates in Egypt.

“Any serious effort to tackle illiteracy starts here,” says Prouty. “The literature is really clear that girls who go to school have less mother mortality, lower infant mortality, more discretionary cash and, importantly, are much more likely to educate their own family.”

National campaigns to eradicate illiteracy became more vigorous following the creation of the Adult Education Authority (AEA) in 1991. The state agency works with educational institutions and various NGOs to eliminate illiteracy, with priority to individuals between the ages of 14 and 45. It develops the national curriculum and administers literacy exams.

But the numbers are daunting. Educators must teach 1.4 million Egyptians to read and write every year just to keep up with the country’s population growth. Only then can they begin to make a mark on the illiteracy rate, shaving off one percent for every 700,000 taught.

National campaigns have helped reduce the country’s illiteracy rate from over 40 percent in 1991 to about 26 percent today. Gholam, however, says the statistics may not accurately reflect the significant progress made by organisations and individuals working outside the state education system.

“It’s very easy to get statistics for children in schools and those in formal learning- you can follow and track them,” she says. “But informal learning is very difficult to track. Literacy is not only taught by the government; it is also taught by civil society, peers and family members.”

Literacy campaigns are utilising informal learning, encouraging university students to instruct their peers and literate family members to teach their relatives. But some say the government needs to show stronger commitment to mandatory education, stiffening the punishment for parents who fail to register their children or withdraw them from school.

The current penalty for taking a child out of school is a 1.80 dollar fine, though it is rarely enforced.

“We must break the cycle of illiteracy that starts with parents deciding not to educate their children,” says Heba Youssef, a primary schoolteacher. “Children who grow up illiterate are less likely to improve their economic situation than those who can read and write. And they are less likely to educate their own children.”

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