Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Commemoration of International Literacy Day

Tuesday, 30 August 2011 18:59 Evan

(Commentary) – There was a well-known Burmese movie during the Burmese Socialist Programme Party era. It was about a 40-year-old farmer. One day, a group of students from Yangon University reached his village and started to teach the elderly people how to read and write Burmese script. After 40 years without literacy, the farmer finally learned how to write and wrote a letter of appreciation to his beloved teachers. The joy the man achieved from learning to write was immense. The movie was popular and the actor won an Academy Prize for his role as the farmer.

Similar to this story, two years ago one of my distant aunts showed me a letter from her son who is working in Malaysia and asked me to read it. I was quite surprised. She was 60 years old and not literate. I had not realized that in my own family there were those who could not read and write. It seemed to me that one cannot survive in this modern world without this skill. There are millions in Burma in this position and their survival is obviously marginal.

A quick read? Retail booths called "Media Corners" (in background) are being built by the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association in six townships in Rangoon. The media corners will sell newspapers, magazines, books, phone cards and computer accessories. Photo: Mizzima

Our country is usually ranked high in the worldwide literacy index at 89.9 per cent, according to the CIA Factbook. It is much higher than neighbouring countries Bangladesh, 47.9 per cent, India, 61 per cent, and Laos 73 per cent. However, Thailand has better rankings at 92 per cent. Despite this ranking, the Burmese government holds on to its own claim of 93.3 per cent and proudly declares it is one of the best scores in Asia.

Out of around 60 million people living in Burma, 6 million are unable to read and write. Such a figure is greater than the number of inhabitants of the biggest city in Burma, Yangon (Rangoon). Therefore, the need for literacy is a challenge for our country.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says one in five adults in the world is still not literate and about two-thirds of them are women. Those who lack literacy number a massive 800 million—three times the population of the United States.

This challenge of tackling illiteracy does not receive sufficient attention amid other global problems, such as terrorism and global warming. It is of utmost importance that we do not forget one problem just because another problem exists.

Since 1966, the UN has marked September 8 as International Literacy Day. The UN also assigned the years 2003 to 2012 as the United Nations Literacy Decade. One of the Millennium Development Goals was to achieve universal primary education by 2015.
Literacy and education are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN and various governments around the world are working to fulfill this basic human right.

In the past, the Burmese government was also truly devoted to elimination of illiteracy. UNESCO even awarded Burma with two literacy prizes. One of them was the Mohammad Reza Pahlevi Prize in 1971 for the voluntary participation of students and youths in the literacy movement and the second was the Noma Literary Prize in 1983 for post literacy literature and activities.

Today, we are not clear on the priority the Burmese government gives to the literacy issue. Reports show the government spent only a small percentage of its overall budget for education in comparison with a large percentage for the military.

The government should be more involved and devoted to the promotion of education rights in parallel with the rest of the world. The government should co-operate with international donors in promoting literacy and education.

Self-applause regarding Burmese literacy ranking should not be a priority. Instead, the government’s emphasis should be on educational opportunities. The joy of literacy should be extended to every farmer in the country. Then they will be able to play an Academy Prize-winning role in their real lives.

Evan is a pseudonym for a commentator living in Burma.

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