See the Surprising Ways Teaching People to Read Could Cure the World's Ills

'A Is for AIDS' in Project Literacy's sobering alphabet.
Feb 24, 2016·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The 26 letters of the Roman alphabet—that's the foundation of being able to read a book or a magazine, of being able to complete a homework assignment, fill out a job application, or search for information on the Internet. Now a new campaign and video from Project Literacy, a coalition of about 40 NGOs, nonprofits, and businesses, is using those letters to turn the spotlight on all the problems that eradicating illiteracy could help solve.

Instead of the typical “A is for apple” letter-word associations taught to children, the campaign's Alphabet of Illiteracy connects the letters to some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. As seen in the clip above, A is for AIDS, B is for bloodshed, C is for child brides, and so on, while animated figures demonstrate the devastation caused by those issues.

RELATED: ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction’: See the Tank Loaded With Books, Not Bullets

On the Project Literacy website, clicking on each letter reveals how each issue connects to illiteracy. Select the letter C, for example, and a shareable page details how learning to read and write keeps girls from becoming child brides. "UNESCO has found if all women had primary school level education, child marriages would drop by 1/6. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone that's half a million girls. Literacy is key to keeping a girl’s childhood innocent," according to the website.

Indeed, data from the U.N. reveals that some 781 million people around the world over the age of 15 are illiterate, and women are disproportionately affected—They're a staggering two-thirds of that population.

But the campaign isn't just raising awareness of problems; it's also asking people to lend their support to a petition to the United Nations. "Illiteracy fuels poverty, hunger, radicalisation, the spread of HIV, child brides, infant mortality and gender inequality. And it has to stop. We want the UN to put literacy at the heart of every action to advance the Global Goals for Sustainable Development," according to the petition.

“Literacy is a key component in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. Without literacy, each of the 17 goals will be limited by the inability of citizens to be sufficiently informed on key issues, and less empowered to take action,” Dan Wagner, the UNESCO chair in learning and literacy at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

The campaign has also tapped British actor and model Lily Cole as an ambassador. She spoke to members of the British Parliament on Tuesday to drum up support. Cole pointed out that the issue isn't only one facing the developing world because “one in five children in the U.K., or one in four in the U.S., leave primary school unable to read and write properly."
"It would seem that with almost every major social issue we face today, illiterate people are significantly more likely to be affected by that problem. Which, understood the other way around, allows us to interpret illiteracy as a cause, rather than a symptom, of many of the world’s challenges,” said Cole.