In Egypt, illiteracy rates down but problem remains

20.1% of Egyptians are now considered illiterate, down from 25.9% in 2013.

Getting there. Students walk to school on the first day of their new school year in Giza, south of Cairo. (Reuters)

2017/10/15 Issue: 127 Page: 20

The Arab Weekly
Hassan Abdel Zaher

Cairo - Egypt has made signifi­cant strides in battling illiteracy, with 20.1% of Egyptians now consid­ered illiterate, down from 25.9% in 2013 and 39.4% in 1996.

However, figures released by the Central Agency for Public Mobili­sation and Statistics (CAPMAS ) to mark International Literacy Day, mean that about 14.3 million Egyp­tians, not including those under the age of 9, cannot read or write.

“This is a very high rate that we should be ashamed of,” said Egyp­tian MP Magda Bakry, a university professor who sits on parliament’s Education Committee. “We must know the reasons why the com­plete eradication of illiteracy is becoming impossible despite all the resources allocated for the Na­tional Literacy Programme.”

Egypt offers free education to millions of citizens in tens of thou­sands of schools and dozens of uni­versities but Egyptians are divided on the quality of free government education, particularly in poor rural areas, with many question­ing why literacy rates are increas­ing so slowly. Some argue that the government must invest more in the National Literacy Programme. Others say the authorities should look to a new solution.

The programme offers literacy classes to anyone who is not in school, both children and adults. The National Literacy Programme involves specialist teachers pro­viding literacy courses to help students learn the Arabic alpha­bet to read and write at a basic level. Many of those who pass the course pursue formal education at special Ministry of Education classes for adults.

Literacy rates among Egyptian adults, particularly in rural areas, are lower according to age. CAP­MAS figures show the illiteracy rate for young Egyptians aged 15- 24 standing at 6.5% compared to 57.1% for those 60 and older.

The National Literacy Pro­gramme is failing to attract a req­uisite level of adult students who never had the opportunity to at­tend school or who dropped out of education. Government figures in­dicate that at least 200,000 pupils dropped out of primary and mid­dle school in 2016. One of the main reasons cited for doing so was to work at a young age to support the family.

“In some areas, children earn a living by working and their fami­lies depend on the money they earn,” said Hanan Salem, a sociol­ogy professor at Ain Shams Uni­versity. “Some children even reach school age and are never enrolled in school by their parents, who need them to work to cater for the needs of the family.”

There are about 1 million work­ing children in Egypt, official fig­ures indicate, although civil so­ciety organisations estimate the number to be much larger, possi­bly as high as 3 million.

Salem said that illiteracy is not just an impediment to economic progress but a possible security threat.

“They can easily be influenced by radical groups that have their own skilful way of swaying the un­educated and turning them against the whole society,” she said.

The General Authority for Lit­eracy and Adult Education, the state agency responsible for im­plementing the National Literacy Programme, said it cannot be held solely responsible for the failures.

“Illiteracy is a national problem and this is why all state institu­tions and all society must join hands with us to solve this prob­lem,” said Essam Qamar, the head of the authority.

He stressed that the General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education would launch a number of new efforts that aim to com­pletely eradicate illiteracy by the end of 2019. To achieve this goal, it is undertaking new measures, including offering incentives, such as vocational education to bolster attendance in literacy classes.

The authority convinced the government to require illiterate drivers to attend literacy classes before they are given or allowed to renew driver’s licences.

“These measures are very im­portant if we want to eradicate il­literacy altogether,” Qamar said. “Sorry to say, a lot of people fail to attend literacy classes, either be­cause they want to use this time to work and earn a living or because they do not want to learn.”

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

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