17 February 2003

Literacy Is Key to a Future of Freedom and Hope for Mankind Secretary-General Says at Launch of UN Literacy Decade

NEW YORK, 14 February (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of the remarks delivered by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a ceremony held on Thursday evening, 13 February, at the New York Public Library, to mark the launch of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012):

I am delighted to be among such a distinguished group of people, united in a vital cause. Let me thank Director-General Matsuura of UNESCO and UNA-USA for helping to bring us together.

I am particularly honoured that we are joined by Mrs. Laura Bush, whose deep commitment to literacy is as inspiring as it is unstinting.

Let me also thank the President and Government of Mongolia, the driving force behind the United Nations Literacy Decade.

We are here because we know that the twenty-first century begins with one in five adults unable to read and write. There are nearly 900 million illiterates in the world today -- and two thirds of them are women.

We are here because we know that literacy is the key to unlocking the cage of human misery; the key to delivering the potential of every human being; the key to opening up a future of freedom and hope.

We are here to open a decade that must translate that hope into reality.

The United Nations Literacy Decade is a call to focus our collective will on the enormity of the task ahead.

It is recognition that we must go beyond efforts of the past, and an opportunity to apply lessons learnt from past mistakes.

It is a reminder that literacy is a human right. Fifty-five years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established that everyone has the right to education. The fact that 20 per cent of the world's adults are deprived of it should fill us all with shame.

Finally, the Decade is an affirmation of the inextricable link between literacy and our work to translate into reality the Millennium Declaration, adopted by all the world's governments as a blueprint for building a better world in the twenty-first century. Literacy is the prerequisite for a healthy, just and prosperous world.

That 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.

No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, promote health -- including the prevention of HIV/AIDS -- and increase the chances of education for the next generation. Let us invest in women and girls.

That is why I am particularly pleased that the first two years of the Decade will be focused on 'literacy and gender'.

We must redouble our efforts to promote the education of girls, who make up the majority of children worldwide who are not in school.

And we must rededicate ourselves to the eradication of adult illiteracy. Here, the best approaches we know are those that are based on community action which takes into account local context and conditions, and puts the needs of the learners at the centre -- with backing from governments, international organizations and civil society.

Those involved in such community action -- most of them women -- are among the most heroic people I know.

Look at the women in a district in Tamil Nadu, India, where 15 years ago the literacy rate was well below the national average. While learning how to read and write, these women wanted to teach women in other, more remote villages the same. How to reach them? They learnt to ride bicycles. Within three years, the district was declared fully literate.

Or look at a team of volunteers in war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, who teach in the local language, Ngbaka, through which they introduce Lingala, the national language, as well as French. The project has continued despite the war because it is run by local people, adapted to their needs, at low cost.

Or listen to a learner in rural Haiti, who was 86 -- yes, 86 -- years old when he uttered these words [and I quote]: "If I'm capable at the end of the project of signing my name, or understanding what's happening when they fetch me for the elections, I know I'll have lived for something".

Let those examples serve as an inspiration to us all.

The world's governments are bound by a pledge to increase global literacy rates by 50 per cent by the year 2015. It has been said about promises like these that we are forever making them, and forever breaking them.

Let this Decade prove that saying wrong. Let's demonstrate that we can keep promises. Let us mobilize the resources -- human and financial -- needed to translate our pledge into reality.

Let this Decade give millions of people around the world the key to a future of freedom and hope.

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