With population boomIlliteracy growing [Archives:2005/809/Front Page]

January 20 2005

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Although efforts have been made to curb illiteracy in the Arab world, the rapid rise in population has helped to push up the number of people in the Middle East that cannot read or write over the last three-and-a-half decades.

According to a report from the Arab League Education, Science and Culture Organization (ALESCO) – based in Tunis and a part of the Arab League – 70 million people over 15 years old in member states of the League are illiterate.

The percentage of people that are illiterate out of the total population has steadily decreased: from 73% in 1970 to 35.6% this year. But in numbers, those who are illiterate rose from 50 million 35 years ago to 61 million in 1990 and now stands at 70 million.

The report showed that nearly half of the women in the region are not able to read or write (46.5%), while 25.1% of the men are illiterate.

The countries struggling the most to fight illiteracy are those having to face poverty coupled with population rising at a rapid pace. The countries cited in the report included Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan.

Although Yemen's Ministry of Education efforts, The World Bank, local and international aid organizations are building more schools for boys and girls in different parts of the country, other factors have been working against it.

Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a private organization based in the United States, reported recently that Yemen's population growth rate is one of the fastest in the world. If the pace continues, in 50 years Yemen's population will jump from around 20 million today to 71 million.

Over 40% of the Yemenis live below the poverty line and another 25% are living just above being poor.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor calculates that around 60% of the Yemeni children are enrolled in school for basic education. Forty-five percent of the population is illiterate.

New efforts have emerged to help control the local population explosion. Last month, President Ali Abdullah Saleh urged that action is needed to help bring the population explosion in Yemen under control and supported family planning.

Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Abdulkarim Al-Arhabi said the key to slow down the rate of population growth is to get more girls to enroll in primary and secondary school, which would reduce the number of early marriages and assist women to plan carefully before developing a family.

“Education is the first priority,” said Al-Arhabi to the Yemen Times. “This is education in general and girls in particular. Educating girls allows them to be more aware of life challenges and at the same time keeping them in schools as long as possible so they finish secondary school and possibly go to a university. This would delay marriages, and once you have an educated girl, she will be able to judge properly feeding ten children or two children with her and her husband's income.”

The ALESCO report also expressed concern that the goal set to cut the number of people unable to read or write in the Arab world in half between 1990 and 2000 was not accomplished. At this pace, it will take roughly 30 years for the region to wipe out illiteracy.

Mongi Bousnina, Head of ALESCO, was quoted recently as saying that the large number people in the Middle East not able to read or write is “a major brake on social, cultural, economic and political development.”

Bousnina also added the increase in illiteracy is “worrying and demands serious effort.”

The report said that some of the Gulf states rich with oil, such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, have improved increasing the number of citizens becoming literate. The Palestinian territories have also shown a rise in the number of people being able to read or write.

ALESCO was established in 1980 with a focus on fighting illiteracy among adults in the Middle East.