Karad: Students of a school form a logo of literacy on the eve of 'International Literacy Day' in Karad, Maharashtra on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI9_7_2016_000067B) Image Credit: PTI

It may come as a shock to many of us that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, which most of us know as Unesco, indicates that despite great strides being made in recent years, there are still approximately 757 million adults of 15 years of age and above worldwide, who cannot read or write a simple sentence, with roughly two-thirds of them being female.

With Dubai Cares being so passionately involved in safeguarding the education of school-age children, as well as the promotion of gender equality, this issue is close to the hearts of all of us in the organisation. The ability to read and write is a fundamental human right and is essential in bringing together communities, educating people about the past and increasing the levels of prosperity.

It’s fitting, then, that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Unesco’s International Literacy Day, being observed today, which is being celebrated under the banner of ‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’. The annual event celebrates and honours national and international engagement efforts and progress made to increase literacy rates around the world. It also addresses current challenges and looks to innovative solutions to further boost literacy in the future.

Here in the UAE, we are fortunate that our leaders have shown great wisdom in actively encouraging their citizens to enjoy the gift of being able to read. In fact, according to the Unesco, the UAE is recognised as a country with the lowest rate of illiteracy in the Arab world, with the most recently-published figures showing the illiteracy level to be lower than one per cent. This is a remarkable achievement and would not have been possible without the absolute attention to education displayed by the country’s leadership.

A wonderful example of the drive of our leaders for literacy was our government’s recent announcement that 2016 will be known as the UAE Year of Reading. As the UAE government said at the time, “the prosperity and success of the people are measured by the standard of their education. The doctrine of the founder of the UAE, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, could well form the cornerstone of the UAE’s ongoing campaign to instil the habit of reading in its people, particularly children”.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has issued directives to establish a higher committee to manage and supervise the UAE Year of Reading. The committee was set up to establish a comprehensive strategic plan and a national framework to encourage reading and trigger a behavioural change in all segments of UAE society. It was also set up to align efforts to further boost the UAE’s position as a global capital for innovation and knowledge and produce what the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs refers to as “a cultured generation that will lead the UAE’s march towards a knowledge-based economy”. It is evident to all, then, how important our inspirational leaders’ view of literacy is. In their opinion, the ability to read is a cornerstone of any successful civilisation.

To achieve the objectives of International Literacy Day, many educational and humanitarian institutions in the UAE have been tirelessly working to reduce the rate of illiteracy in the country through the development of reading and writing skills throughout the region and around the world. Dubai Cares is one of these active institutions.

We have helped children of school age in no fewer than 41 developing countries, as well as built and renovated more than 2,100 classrooms and schools. Moreover, Dubai Cares is building more than 3,400 latrines in schools and helping provide healthy meals to more than half a million school children every single day. We helped in keeping more than 2.75 million children free from intestinal worms through a number of de-worming activities. We have also provided training for more than 42,000 teachers and distributed more than 2.2 million books in local languages to help the education of children around the world.

According to a Unesco report published in 2011, “most Arab states have made progress in providing education over the past decade. However, the quality of education remains poor, many children still leave primary education prematurely and illiteracy rates are relatively high”. The reason? Unrest and political instability.

Approximately six million primary school-aged children in the Arab World remain out of school, with the majority being girls. Syria continues to face devastating humanitarian crises. There are more than four million people displaced, with one million of them being children. Some two million refugees have fled to Jordan and Lebanon and the refugee crisis in Syria is now recognised as the fastest growing in the world. The cumulative effect these disasters have on literacy levels for Syrian people should not be underestimated and efforts are underway to help. For instance, Dubai Cares supports education interventions for Syrian refugees in the region and more than half the books collected as part of the Reading Nation campaign during this Ramadan will be donated to them.

In recent years, the Occupied Territories have witnessed a huge fall in primary school enrolment and as part of Dubai Cares Rebuild Palestine, Start with Education initiative, children were provided necessary supplies of learning material, social cycle programmes as well as building schools and sustaining the capacity of teaching staff.

Literacy is extremely effective in empowering individuals, communities and societies. Without the ability to read and write, the World Wide Web, for example, becomes irrelevant and even something as simple as sending a text message is impossible — both things most of us take for granted, but remain out of reach for hundreds of millions of people across the globe. The negative impact of this on underprivileged societies should not be underestimated and we join Unesco in doing what we can to increase levels of literacy for school children — irrespective of gender, race, nationality or religion.

The target that everyone involved with International Literacy Day is aiming for is that by 2030, all youth and a substantial proportion of adults — both men and women — should achieve literacy and numeracy. Surely, that is something we all can get behind. By educating children and adults in developing countries and communities, we can help make the world a better place. Literacy really is the foundation that a civilised society is built upon.

Tariq Al Gurg is the chief executive officer, Dubai Cares.