The ability to read and write is something that most people in the UK take for granted, but on International Literacy Day (8th September annually) let us spare a thought for millions of people around the world – including in the UK – who were never taught these essential skills.
There are still around 750 million illiterate adults in the world, two thirds of whom are women and five million of them are in the UK, so it's a gendered issue that's far closer to home than one might think in 2018.
The problem repeats itself through the generations, with the repercussions felt throughout girls’ lives, perpetuating gender discrimination and a lack of awareness of their basic human rights, which is why literacy features highly in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Sarah Jane Todd, 31, from Shaftesbury, Dorset, is one woman who was determined to break the illiteracy cycle. She was in primary school when she first realised she had a problem with reading and was diagnosed with dyslexia soon after. But her school offered little specialised support and she was left feeling ashamed and embarrassed and managed to slip through the cracks, finding various ways to cope on her own.
I steered clear of relationships as I’d rather not have to explain I struggle with reading and writing to someone new
Sarah Jane Todd
"Everybody around me was reading newspapers and magazines, and I was just looking at the pictures and guessing what was written," Todd told Refinery29. "I tried reading but it didn’t make sense to me. I tried asking people for help but they gave me the ‘you must be joking’ look, or just told me to ask someone else. I steered clear of relationships as I’d rather not have to explain I struggle with reading and writing to someone new." As for jobs, there was always writing involved, which proved Todd's downfall. Her saving grace was that she was good with numbers and could handle money.
It was the birth of her twin daughters that acted as a catalyst for change. "Having children is supposed to be one of the most important and special times of your life, and I absolutely loved it – until I needed to read something. During story time with my twins, I would sometimes cry on the inside as I watched other people read to them while I couldn’t. It was so frustrating for me."
So, when her twin daughters began their own schooling years and started asking for stories and help with their homework, Todd vowed to learn to read. She found a local literacy program called Read Easy and started taking classes. She now reads to her daughters regularly, encourages their love of reading and is even writing a book about her experiences with illiteracy.
"I’ve been laughed at and I’ve been given awful nicknames. I became very thick-skinned and rude as people were often being very offensive to me without even realising. I remember being in the doctors once and asking an old lady to help me fill in a form. She looked horrified and asked me if I went to school, I was shocked but said 'yes,' and that I had just struggled. She told me it must have been my parent’s fault that I wasn’t able to read. I was so embarrassed."
Thankfully there are many campaigns and initiatives working to address the illiteracy crisis, including Project Literacy, one of Read Easy's partners, which is a global campaign made up of over 120 charities and organisations to fight against illiteracy and ensure that everyone has the chance to fulfil their potential. The amount of wasted potential is even more heartbreaking when contemplated in global terms, and it's Project Literacy’s goal that by 2030 no child is born at risk of becoming illiterate.
I wanted to be a lawyer or a policewoman. It's too late for me now because I'm 36
Amina Pirotta, 36, moved to the UK in 2010 with the ability to speak three languages (English, French and Berber) but not being able to read or write in any of them until six months ago. Having grown up in a traditional family in Morocco, there was little value placed on sending girls to school. She is now married to an English man and works as a housekeeper, but admits this was far from her dream, and contemplating her situation makes her "very sad".
"I wanted to be a lawyer or a policewoman," she told Refinery29. "It's too late for me now because I'm 36. You start a job at 18 or 17, and go to college to learn more for these jobs. To be lawyer, it's not easy and to be a policewoman you have to go to secondary school. Sometimes I see American women, like George Clooney's wife, and I wish I could be like her. If my mum or dad, or somebody helped me when I was young, I could do a job like her. It does make me sad but what can I do? I can't do anything."
Like Sarah, Amina is learning to read with help from Read Easy and while she finds it difficult, she is optimistic. "I find it very very hard. I never knew how to spell my name and now I know my name and my surname. It makes my life much easier, now I can get a job, I can read some things. I want to have kids, and do homework with my kids. I'm excited for the future now."