It is discouraging that almost one billion human beings cannot read or write. Not surprisingly, 98% of those who are illiterate live in developing nations. That is because poverty robs those who are trapped in its relentless grip the opportunity for even the most basic types of education. When the daily goal of life is simply surviving, the luxury of learning how to read is often out of reach. That is heartbreaking because the importance of literacy should not be overlooked. Being able to read and write is more than just enjoying a book or newspaper, being literate impacts your chances of having freedom and economic opportunity. Being able to absorb knowledge through print and to be able to express yourself through writing is critical in a person’s intellectual development.  

When a human being can read, the entire world opens up for them. No matter where you live or how severe the conditions are that exist around you, having the ability to read can transport you to any place in the universe. For those suffering in extreme poverty it offers a magical escape from the pain and misery that floods their lives. It provides an endless source of knowledge that feeds curiosity and expands the minds of children. It offers the chance to study history so that we understand the present and we can try to avoid the mistakes of the past. Reading is an explosion of facts and fantasy that elevates the human mind to realms that it might not otherwise reach…but for so many around the world it is only a dream – not a reality.  

Of the more than 900 million people who are illiterate, almost two-thirds are women. That is because in most situations concerning extreme poverty women suffer in far greater numbers than men. Illiteracy is just another example of how economically deprived women are treated unfairly. They continually suffer more of the burden of poverty than males, and, because their lives are not considered to have the same value as a man’s, they are less likely to be educated. This traps them even further in the hopelessness of destitution because they are not provided the intellectual skills needed to lift themselves and their children out of the dangerous and humiliating cesspool of their economic prison.  

Promoting literacy for children is particularly important if we are going to break the generational cycle of extreme poverty that claims 1 out of every 6 human beings on earth. When a child is taught to read and write, his opportunities in life multiply in every direction. These basic tools allow a child to explore areas of interest that can lead to avenues of escape from their world of hunger, illness and disease. Literacy is the key that opens the door to a new life free of pain and suffering. It also allows a person to return home with an education so they can, in turn, help those who were not as fortunate. When an individual gains such knowledge they often have the desire and conviction to share the same opportunity with others.  

Learning to read and write also expands a human being’s ability to express themselves so that they can interact on a deeper level with others, and in the age of the internet those thoughts and opinions can be shared with the entire world. This is a very powerful ability that levels the playing field for those who previously had little opportunity to be heard. The power to express one’s opinions is an important force in determining a person’s rights and freedoms. To be able to read and write about injustice, intolerance or abuse is vitally important in a society. Without literacy there is far less ability to ascertain real facts as opposed to just propaganda and opinion. It enables people to hold those in charge accountable for the decisions they make or fail to make. Literacy empowers the individual.  

Down through the ages, disproportionate power has been given to those who could read and write. Everything from government edicts to religious dogma has been spoon fed to the masses as absolute truth without any chance for discussion or rebuttal on the part of those who did not have the ability to read for themselves or to express their displeasure or disbelief about what was being forced upon them. This has had tragic consequences throughout human history. When information is tightly controlled and only flows in one direction you can be sure that it will be less than accurate. It will usually reflect the bias and prejudice of those who create the facts to suit their own personal agenda. 

Only when those who have to live under these political and religious mandates have the intellectual skills to think for themselves and to question and debate the merits of these supposed “truths” that have been the law for generations will there be a free exchange of ideas and concepts regarding some of the most important aspects of human existence. Literacy is an important tool in the fight against totalitarian thought. No matter what the source may be for such restrictive thinking, literacy allows individuals to fight back against oppression and tyranny. To be able to read and write effectively about the important issues that face humanity is a basic human right that should not be denied to anyone. 

When we teach someone in poverty to read we are obviously giving them a gift they will enjoy the rest of their lives, but, more importantly, literacy is one of the most effective ways there is to help a person help themselves. Once that gift has been received it can never be taken away. No entity can strip away your ability to think and to learn. That is the secret to the power of literacy. Even in extreme poverty the ability to understand information and to transmit it in writing is invaluable. But as important as that may be, we must not over look the pure joy of being able to read and write. It is simply one of life’s greatest pleasures. The wonders of the written word have enthralled humanity throughout time, and to not be able to participate in such a basic and yet profound part of the human experience is tragic.  

As always it is those who have the least who suffer the most. It is time that we realized the extraordinary importance of literacy in the lives of those trapped in extreme poverty. This is an opportunity that we must commit ourselves to providing. It is a cost-effective way to make a dramatic difference in the lives of millions. It requires no sophisticated technology, no heavy equipment and no massive fund-raising to make it happen. All we need is the compassion and the willingness to help other human beings. Your ability to read and understand this post qualifies you to make a difference in the life of someone whose world is closed off to the wonders and beauty of literature. We each have an obligation to use our ability to read to help those who have been denied, through no fault of their own, the opportunity to share in the universal language of the written word.  



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