Investing in Female Literacy — by SJ

Discussions in development usually deal with the question of investment. For example, leaders often debate on the pros and cons of investing in climate change initiatives, economic development, or health care. How much money, time, and effort should be invested into these categories will be based on how high the returns are expected to be. While these topics are clearly applicable and important in development, there is another issue which holds equal, if not more, significance in terms of the development when considering the high returns that it offers: female literacy.

Literacy, the “essential knowledge and skills [of] reading, writing, and arithmetic” [1], is foundational to individual, familial, communal, and national development. Literacy has long been recognized as a universal human right and a gateway to the pursuit of other rights, as well as a main tool to combat poverty [2]. Yet globally, two-thirds of illiterate adults are female, which translates into 496 million individuals. Though young women (ages 15-24) have made the greatest gains in literacy in the past few years, they still lag behind young men, as three out of five illiterate youths are female [3]. These data are evidence that illiteracy has become an increasingly gendered issue that disproportionately affects women.

Yet it seems that nations, especially developing nations, are willing to invest very little in the literacy of women. If this is left unchanged, illiteracy will continue on as a cycle that plagues both women and nations. The following will address how an increase in women’s literacy is one of the highest-returning investments that can be made by nations by examining the impact illiteracy has on women, the costs and obstacles of educating the illiterate, and the benefits of increasing female literacy.


Being illiterate, women are essentially blind to navigate “the confusion and difficulties that they encounter as uneducated members of [societies which are] already harshly discriminatory against women” [4]. This “blindness” has far-reaching and life-lasting negative consequences. An illiterate woman cannot read street signs, instruction manuals, or medical prescriptions. She cannot help her children with their schoolwork. Simple arithmetic, used when counting money or measuring distances, is an unknown concept. Even signing her name is impossible.

Often, an illiterate woman will not understand why her children, especially her daughters, should be sent to school when they could be home helping the family to survive [5], which only perpetuates the cycle of illiteracy.

Beyond this, illiterate women are likely to have little conceptual knowledge of literature, the arts, or of civil society [5]. Illiterate women cannot read books or newspapers, and instead must rely on television or radio (if available), gossip, and their male family members to be aware of what is going on in the world around them. Illiteracy makes women dependent on others in forming their own opinions and bars them from becoming informed, contributing members of society. While illiterate women are not stupid individuals, they are uneducated, which ties them to low status in the social structure.  


Unfortunately, there are multiple obstacles than hinder increasing women’s literacy. While it is not technically essential for an individual to have formal schooling to becoming literate, literacy usually translates into “four to five years of primary education” [1]. If formal schooling is the route taken to literacy, there will inevitably be financial costs. These costs could include materials, such as blackboards, pencils, papers, books, desks, and a place to learn. In addition, the costs of tuition, while sometimes eradicated with a stipend from the government, are difficult for many families to pay, making the investment unfeasible.

Another obstacle to educating girls and women is the inevitable opportunity cost between the time spent on housework and the time spent in school. As King notes, “In addition to lost work, parents in many countries feel that girls are foregoing important childcare, household and craft training at home if they go to school” [6]. Even the time and money it takes for students to reach schools can be a hindrance, taking up the precious time needed to help the family survive. This shows that many individuals understandably do not feel that the investment in education in increase their daughters’ or wives’ literacy rates provides a high enough return.

This mindset is especially prevalent in societies which practice the system of patrilocality, where a bride will be taken to live with her husband’s family, typically cutting off all communication with her own family. If parents are going to give away their daughters when married, often as teenagers, then it makes little sense to educate her for someone else’s benefit. The returns of an educated daughter who has left the family are not high enough to invest in.

One usually unacknowledged obstacle of educating females is that of proper toilet facilities and menstrual products. If toilets for girls are not available, girls often skip school or do not enroll [7], as there are not sanitary and private locations for them to change or dispose of feminine products or to use the restroom in privacy. In Africa, female students are absent 20% of the time because they lack proper menstrual products and they fear being teased and shamed for menstruation [8]. Some girls use alternative, unsanitary measures to deal with menstrual blood, but these are only quick solutions that cause illnesses later on.

It is also important to consider the risk of physical harm involved with educating girls and women, which has unfortunately become commonplace. As evidenced by the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, and the abduction of 237 Nigerian female students in Nigeria by Boko Haram, terrorists groups oppose the education of women, and will go to violent measures to prevent it. For many girls and women around the world, this means that seeking literacy could mean risking their lives, a price many are unwilling to pay. As one Afghan father of two female students admitted, “It is better for my children to be alive even if it means they must be illiterate” [9].


While the costs and obstacles to becoming literate are daunting, the multitude of benefits that literacy provides a compelling argument to educate females. To begin with, an educated woman will make educated decisions. She will have the knowledge and skills to understand how her decisions and the decisions made by those around her will affect her and her family. When a woman becomes literate, she becomes more equal to already literate men. While increased literacy will not fix all gender inequality issues, it provides a great starting point to work towards egalitarianism.

Being literate provides a sense of purpose for women, who otherwise feel both useless and helpless [4]. This increased self-confidence manifests itself in all aspects of a woman’s life. Once literate, an entire world of possibilities opens up to her. She can read and write, communicating with loved ones with letters, and if available, she will be able to use the internet. She can better understand her own body and its functions, such as menstruation, and how she can better care of herself.

A woman’s newfound literacy does not just affect her, it affects her family as well. King finds that increased enrollment of girls in formal schooling increases life expectancies and gross national product per capita, and decreases infant mortality and the total fertility rate [6]. Indeed, she will be less likely to contract HIV/AIDS and to participate in early sexual activity [7]. On average, a literate woman have fewer children at later ages than illiterate women, and will have a better understanding of hygiene and nutrition [10]. In turn, she will raise healthier, better educated children, and will be able to make contributions to her community [11]. Increased literacy will create more opportunities for a woman to seek employment or run a business, and seek continued education. Since women are more likely to spend their earnings on their families than men [7], families will benefit financially. Life at home is likely to improve, as education decreases the risks of domestic violence and female genital mutilation, and can foster political participation and community involvement [7].


All of the above data indicates that though improving female literacy is an investment with high costs, its benefits outweigh these risks. If women are allowed and encouraged to be educated, many development problems would be remedied. The current consequences of illiteracy being borne by women that affect the agricultural, social, cultural, political, and economical aspect of nations would improve, benefitting every individual. If we improve women’s literacy by overcoming the negative costs of increasing female literacy, the investment will yield unparalleled returns.  

—By SJ


[1] Bowen, Donna Lee. 2015. “Women and Education.” Lecture, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. January 27, 2015.

[2] Read Educational Trust. 2010. “Literacy as a Human Right.”

[3] UNESCO 2014. “Literacy Data Show Persistent Gender Gap.” UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

[4] Gall, Carlotta. 2002. “Long in Dark, Afghan Women Say to Read is Finally to See.” New York Times, September 22. html?scp=5&sq=Carlotta%20Gall%202002%20Afghanistan%20dark%20women&st=cse

[5] Powerful Information. 2015. “What is it Like to be Illiterate?” Education Resources.

[6] King, Elizabeth M. 1990. Educating girls and women: Investing in development. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. 140&page=docs

[7] Herz, Barbara and Gene Sperling. 2004. “What Works in Girls’ Education.” Council on Foreign Relations.

[8] Taylor, Leonie. 2011. “No Pads, No School: Girls’ Education Going Down the Toilet.” Think

Africa Press, July 27.

[9] Bearack, Barry. 2007. “As War Enters Classrooms, Fear Grips Afghans.” New York Times, July 10. enters%20Afghan%20classrooms%202007&st=cse&_r=1&

[10] SIL International. 2014. “Women and Literacy.”

[11] UNESCO. 2006. “Education for All Global Monitoring Report.” Why Literacy Matters.

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