In honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d deviate from my usual format to share some thoughts on female literacy.

Reading and writing have been so central to my life, so much at the core of how I understand my own identity and purpose, that I can’t fathom being without them.

Perhaps more important, I can’t imagine being without the opportunities and independence they provide.  Just off the top of my head, here are a few basic, day-to-day things I wouldn’t be able to do (or at least would have a very hard time doing) if I were illiterate:

Drive safely.

Make a shopping list.

Earn my own living.

Use medications safely.

Read to my daughter.

Did you see that last one?  Because it’s possibly the most important item on the list.

According to the UN Literacy Decade’s Mid-Decade Review, about 60% of the world’s illiterate adults are women.  That’s a stubborn percentage, too–it’s held steady for many, many years.  I have to believe there’s a generational component to that statistic.

Particularly in societies where daily life segregates along gender lines, girls spend a disproportionate amount of time in the company of their mothers.  And how likely are you to become literate if the person you spend most of your time with can’t read or write? Not very.

You’re also not likely to do much to change your circumstances, or those of the women and girls around you. You simply don’t have the tools to learn that there’s any other way to live–or to spread any revolutionary ideas that might come into your head.

There’s a reason that repressive regimes muzzle the press, censor literature, and deny education to women (or anyone else they want to disenfranchise).  Because literacy and education expose people to information and ideas outside the realm of their immediate experience.

Information that there’s another way to do things.  That successful uprisings are the stuff of history, not legend.  That women can fight for their own survival, equality, and prosperity. That they can be ambitious and courageous.

So, in honor of International Women’s Day, share a book with a girl you know.  Just because you can.

For more information, and opportunities for action:

Literacy statistics from the CIA World Factbook

UNESCO’s Literacy Decade initiative

ProLiteracy’s Women in Literacy initiative

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