August 19, 2016

Significance of International Literacy Day 2015 to Myanmar

Since 1966, International Literacy Day has been celebrated in member countries of the United Nations every year on 8th September under the aegis of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with a specific theme to focus on one of the many facets of literacy in promoting peace, progress and prosperity for mankind. The theme selected by UNESCO for this year is Literacy and Sustainable Societies.  In my opinion, the theme highlights the role of literacy in building stability, security, sensitivity to social needs, sincerity by all levels of society in showing concern for the welfare of others, skill-building to make use of the opportunities and to face the challenges of the 21st century and securing success in raising education, health and economic standards of the poor which are all necessary in promoting sustainable societies. Among the many challenges developing countries are facing is bringing literacy to all their citizens, because according to UNESCO, worldwide 781 million adults are still unable to read and write and among them two-thirds are women.
Myanmar fully realizes the role of literacy in poverty alleviation and building a peaceful, prosperous and modern society and has given due attention to the spread of literacy in the country.  Success achieved by Myanmar in this very important area has been given due recognition by the world community with the awarding of two international awards, the Mohamed Reza Pahlavi Prize in 1971 and twelve years later, in 1983, the Noma Prize. The success was achieved not due to the effort, or brilliance of a single person, or of a small group of people, but it was achieved because of the awakening, contribution, active participation, organizational skills,  firm support, and sustained efforts of many leading scholars in the country, national and local level authorities, university and basic education teachers, artistes and hundreds of university student volunteers, some of whom had never set foot in the countryside, and who bravely faced weeks of discomfort and deprivation to live among their learners, many of them from poor villages in order to promote literacy in both accessible and remote rural areas. The names of those persons who took a leading role in the pioneering literacy campaigns should be put on record for their outstanding contribution to freeing thousands of illiterates from the shackles of dependency, ignorance and backwardness, because where there is dependency, there will be exploitation by more educated and deceitful persons, where there is ignorance, there will be ill-will, strive, and intolerance, and where there is backwardness, there will be human suffering due to outdated and harmful health and social practices.  Moreover, it must also be noted that the success could not have been achieved without the enthusiastic participation of thousands of middle-aged male and female illiterates who shed their inhibitions and shame to learn new skills like little children.  The literacy campaigns first initiated in Myanmar as a pilot project in 1965 continue up to the present, and each year, new areas where pockets of illiteracy still prevail are identified, and during the long summer vacation, literacy campaigns are held in these areas with the assistance of volunteer university students and teachers in the region. This year, literacy campaigns are being held in 30 townships, a huge increase from that of 9 in 2003.
In my opinion, if they are to achieve total success, literacy campaigns need to adopt a five-pronged strategy.  The first is to ensure total eradication in an area through repeated but smaller campaigns making use of local resources, such as the teachers and high school students in the locality, to ensure that there are no illiterates remaining in the area.  Neo-literates can also be invited to assist as guides as well as to serve as inspirations to those who have to repeatedly attend literacy classes to gain full literacy.  The second is to ensure that neo-literates do not relapse into illiteracy again.  Sometimes, people may not remember that certain skills can be forgotten once they do not make much use of it. Literacy is one such skill. To provide opportunities for neo-literates to practice their skills, they need to be provided regularly with attractive and interesting graded readers on topics relevant to them and that benefits them.  If possible, libraries and small book lending centres for all literates should be established in each village or a cluster of villages. Reading, writing and arithmetic competitions for neo-literates should also be held occasionally to enable them to show off their skills. The third is to link literacy with life skills, self and family management skills and small-scale vocational training programmes by reinforcing verbal instruction with simple written instructions, thereby giving them practical opportunities to make use of their newly acquired skills. The strategy is to encourage young neo-literates to join formal education, and for them to do so, education opportunities need to be created through various kinds of assistance from the community and the state, so that the literacy skills they have acquired can be put to use in order to gain more advanced knowledge and skills.  The fifth is to invite participation of the private sector to contribute their human, financial and technical resources in the national endeavour to promote literacy and make them appreciate that being involved in the literacy campaigns is also fulfilling a part of their corporate social responsibility. One area where the private sector can take a leading role is to provide financial and technical assistance in the production of learning materials for literacy campaigns as well in the production and distribution of reading and writing materials for the neo-literates, the holding of vocational programmes and the establishment of reading centres in villages. This needs sustained interest as well as sustained investments.  Not only will this involvement enhance their corporate image of their enterprises and industries, but it will also make genuine contribution to national development and productivity, and the improvement of the lives of individual families.
As we learnt from our past experience, future literacy campaigns needs the active participation of many persons and organizations in the country – the government, local authorities, higher education institutions, basic and higher education teachers, university students, methodology specialists at teacher education institutions, artistes, media personnel, illiterates and their communities. Links need also to be formed with international organizations to coordinate with them in keeping track of literacy figures and the progress achieved, gaining technical and financial assistance from them, and sharing best practices to advance literacy.  Finally, what are the dividends of promoting literacy in the country?  A literate population is easier to lead to the path of development. A literate population values knowledge, education, and skills, seeks to constantly improve itself, tries to progress from basic reading, writing, numeracy literacy to advanced digital and media literacy and also tries to provide better education than they have received to the next generation.  A literate population can better manage its social and health matters. A literate population has better thinking skills that will help it differentiate between right and wrong, major and minor issues and injustice and fairness and makes better decisions. A literate population cannot be incited over minor issues, has more understanding and patience, values democratic principles, can be more tolerant to diversity and better appreciates peace knowing that wars and strives do more harm than benefit.  A literate population also respects each other’s rights, accepts responsibilities, is less selfish and is reluctant to exploit others, knowing that justice and equality are better for a society than injustice and inequality. All these factors enhance society and contribute to building a sustainable one and make it want to improve itself for the next generation.


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