|14 February 2003

Literacy a Prerequisite for a Healthy, Just, Prosperous World, Deputy Secretary-General Says at Launch of UN Literacy Decade

NEW YORK, 13 February (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of remarks as delivered today, by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette to mark the launch of the United Nations Literacy Decade:

I am very happy to be with you for the launch of the United Nations Literacy Decade. With this Decade, we open a new phase in the global effort to spread literacy and its benefits to all peoples and all societies.

Let me thank the President and Government of Mongolia for being the driving force behind this initiative, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for organizing this event.

Literacy remains part of the unfinished business of the twentieth century. One of the success stories of the twenty-first must be the extension of literacy to include all humankind. There is no time to lose if we are to meet the goal agreed by the world's governments to increase world literacy rates by 50 per cent by the year 2015.

Although literacy campaigns have succeeded in increasing literacy worldwide, an enormous task lies ahead. The sheer scale of global illiteracy is massive: approximately 860 million people -- one adult in five -- cannot read or write. Two-thirds of those are women.

That means we must go beyond efforts of the past, and apply lessons learnt from past mistakes.

We must build on the most successful approaches we know -- those based on community action that take into account local context and conditions.

We must work in partnerships bringing together governments, civil society, the United Nations family and other international organizations to support those approaches.

And we must place the needs of learner communities at the centre of our efforts. I am delighted that today, a learner and a tutor have agreed to come and speak to us about their experiences.

Literacy is a human right. Fifty-five years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established that everyone has the right to education. It is unconscionable that 20 per cent of the world's adult population are still denied this right.

Literacy is not only a goal in itself. It is a prerequisite for a healthy, just and prosperous world. It is a crucial tool in our work to translate into reality the Millennium Development Goals -- adopted by all the world's governments as a blueprint for building a better world in the twenty-first century.

This is especially true of female literacy. We know from study after study that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women.

When women are educated and empowered, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. It increases their chances of protecting themselves against HIV/AIDS -- and the chances of education for their children.

And what is true of families is true of communities -- ultimately, indeed, of whole countries.

That is why the first two years of the Decade will be focused on "literacy and gender".

The United Nations Literacy Decade is a unique opportunity to work together in a sustained way for 10 years in order to make a real difference -- to put to work all the lessons we have learnt about how to promote literacy.

It is an occasion to concentrate the minds of the international community and ensure that we mobilize the human and financial resources needed to translate our pledges into action. Let "literacy for all" be our battle cry for the next decade.

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