Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

ARGENTINA: Illiteracy on the Way Out

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 10 2011 (IPS) - Efforts by the government and thousands of volunteers in Argentina have succeeded in slashing the illiteracy rate to just 1.9 percent, with a goal to eliminate it completely within the next four years.

So Delia Méndez, director and coordinator of the Education Ministry’s National Literacy and Basic Education Programme for Young People and Adults, told IPS.

Méndez also highlighted the achievement of equalising the literacy rate for men and women, formerly skewed heavily against women.

The 2001 census recorded an illiteracy rate of 2.6 percent, which declined to 1.9 percent according to the October 2010 census, in spite of population growth from 36.2 million to over 40 million.

Argentina now ranks among the most advanced countries in the region in terms of literacy, together with Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba and Venezuela, all of which have illiteracy rates of under five percent, according to the Organisation of Ibero-American States (OEI).

According to the OEI, the Latin American average for people over 15 who cannot read or write is nine percent, with some countries having illiteracy rates of over 15 percent.

Regional statistics also show that women, in general, are more affected by illiteracy than men. For instance, in Bolivia, 78.5 percent of illiterate people are women, and similar proportions prevail in Guatemala, Mexico and Paraguay.

Méndez said that in order to combat illiteracy, Argentina created the literacy programme “Encuentros” in 2004, which called on civil society volunteers to teach literacy in a range of community centres, and provided them with the necessary materials.

Nearly 50,000 literacy centres were set up in trade unions, soup kitchens, schools, libraries, clubs and places of worship; “also in family homes, and even under a tree in provinces with hot climates,” Méndez said.

Nationwide, nearly 35,000 volunteers came forward to participate in the programme and take Education Ministry training courses.

The campaign had a big effect on lowering illiteracy in provinces where the rate was high. For instance, in the northeastern province of Chaco, illiteracy fell from eight to 5.5 percent, and in the adjacent province of Formosa, from six to 4.1 percent.

Juan Morillo coordinated literacy workers in Monteros, in the northwestern province of Tucumán, where 1,300 adults learned to read and write, 70 percent of whom were women, he told IPS.

Morillo said this was achieved by inviting women whose families receive benefits from government health and social programmes, and who were unable to read leaflets, instructions or vaccination timetables, to take the literacy course.

“Literacy opens the door to many other rights, and self-esteem rises enormously in people who learn to read and write,” he said.

Méndez emphasised the positive finding in the 2001 and 2010 censuses that women’s literacy, which was lower than men’s 10 years ago, is now on a par with men’s.

“This was a very encouraging result, because we saw a large majority of women, especially among the over-30s, coming to the literacy courses while their children were at school,” she said.

She said the ministry tries to get newly literate people to complete their primary education and continue their studies, but she admitted that it ran into a great deal of resistance.

“We stress its importance, but people are reluctant. They are happy to be able to read and write, but they don’t want to go back to school,” she said.

In spite of the progress, the coordinator said there are still pockets of illiteracy. As the illiteracy rate is reduced, the challenge of eradication becomes harder, especially among isolated or nomadic populations like migrant rural workers, she said.

One of the segments of the population that will now be targeted is indigenous groups resistant to learning to read and write in Spanish, she said. To do this, they will work closely with indigenous community leaders.

They also plan to institute specific programmes for migrant rural workers who move from province to province depending on the seasonal work available, and who cannot attend a six-month course.

In any case, said Méndez, potential literacy trainees have to be specifically sought out. But once they begin to learn to read, people’s resistance melts away as they quickly see results.

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