International Literacy Day is one of the first ‘days’ declared by the UN, going as far back as 1965. September 8th is the day that seeks to focus public opinion on the major global problem of illiteracy. This is vitally important in least-developed and developing countries where large percentages of the population do not even have basic reading and writing skills. Literacy is seen as a human right, and a means of personal and social development – it makes an essential contribution to wide variety of goals like maintaining peace and promoting democracy, eradicating poverty, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, is the main organization behind the concept of International Literacy Day, and every year it reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally.
According to statistics as of 2011, some 793 million adults still lack minimum literacy skills, nearly two-thirds of whom are women, which means that about one in six adults is still not literate. 67.4 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out. UNESCO provides support to member states of the United Nations to promote literacy in varied ways, from technical expertise, strategic policy-making, capacity-building programs, research, monitoring and evaluation as well as advocacy. International Literacy Day is one small cog in this literacy machine, drawing attention to the plight of millions who are unable to rise out of the depths of extreme poverty, to claim their lives and full potential.
On this day every year UNESCO awards international literacy prizes to the most innovative and inspiring literacy programs. The prizes reward exceptional work in the fight against illiteracy, including supporting literacy in multilingual contexts and supporting literacy in rural areas. There is a declared theme for each year and themes in the past have included “The Power of Women's Literacy”, “Literacy and Health” and for 2011 “Literacy for Peace”. Some supporters of International Literacy Day include the Global Development Research Center, Montblanc, the National Institute for Literacy, and Rotary International.
At the national and local level, International Literacy Day is celebrated in schools, community centers, NGOs and more, from efforts aimed at impacting one person at a time, such as in a classroom, to highly publicized national events and advocacy by prominent authors. Philanthropic organizations take this opportunity to organize events to uplift children and improve their educational prospects, such as through competitions offering scholarships as prizes. Even in modern developed countries, International Literacy Day is used as a tool to encourage marginalized communities to equip themselves with the skills to create a better life. Education has long been recognized as imperative for individual, social and national development, and International Literacy Day serves to remind us that wherever we are, however much we know, there is always more to learn.