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Literacy: Powerful Weapon Against Inequality if We Use It

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Nobody is against education.

Except that Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to learn.

Except that where 750 million adults around the world remain illiterate, two-thirds are women.

Except that the number of children with disabilities globally who are overlooked by the system is registered, rather weakly, as “unknown.”

Nobody is against education. So why do the figures look so bad?

International Literacy Day is Sept. 8, and I believe it’s a cause that needs our backing.

“Literacy,” though. As a word, it’s slightly tedious – reminiscent of spelling tests and red marker on ruled paper.

As a mission, it carries none of the profundity of International Day of Peace, none of the immediacy and urgency of World Health Day.

Conflict and disease are quantifiable, tangible. We want to fight them; we imagine them knocking at our door.

But illiteracy? Picturing ourselves, our friends and neighbors, unable to read and write? It’s not just an unlikely prospect. I suspect for many of us, it’s quite literally unimaginable.

The trouble is our own privilege keeps getting in the way.

For the educated, literacy is something of a given, like that birthday gift so recognizable by its size and shape that, once unwrapped, we’re no longer pleased by it.

We’re not worried that over 600 million children and adolescents across the world lack minimum proficiency in reading because we sense the problem is being taken care of.

Governments and policymakers have got this; it isn’t our place to help. When we assume someone else is handling it, we effectively forget which closed doors we’d still be standing outside without the golden key of our education.

Literacy opens those doors – to health education, financial security, social mobility, the legal system and even God’s word.

“A teacher affects life for eternity” is how Roger Pearce, BMS World Mission’s education lead, elegantly puts it.

It’s why education forms one of BMS’ seven pillars of ministry, from making mission work a viable choice for parents serving overseas with their children, to setting up preschools in contexts as varied as Africa and Asia, where pathways into schooling for disadvantaged children don’t exist. And we know it works.

We know that when it comes to education, you’re never just teaching the kids.

We’ve seen parents in Mozambique and Bangladesh linger outside the classroom, looking in on a future for their children that they never had for themselves.

Parents in Uganda are getting passionate about safeguarding and preventing child abuse.

Schools once reserved for mission kids are reaching out to support the local community – and whole districts are being given hope.

We’re excited that knowledge is not a finite commodity. It has a curious way of replicating and spreading – hopping across countries and continents.

BMS’ PEPE preschool education project has been developed across Brazil, Mozambique, Angola and huge swathes of South America, reaching hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children with its chameleon-like ability to reframe itself for each country and context.

And what about changing an entire nation – even a government?

In Nepal, BMS partner KISC Equip collaborated with the Ministry of Education to introduce creative teaching reforms – ideas the government enthusiastically applied to the national curriculum.

BMS is not afraid to step alongside governments as we seek to transform lives; it’s one sure-fire way to reach as many people as possible. To change our world.

While the world’s lungs are burning and fascism is on the rise, your first thought to do something about it may not be “more preschools.” But change comes through education. Even in these small ways.

Literacy undoes more injustices than we might imagine. There’s a direct correlation between illiteracy and prejudice against women, people with disabilities and people in poverty. Education addresses some of these injustices.

The pen is mightier than the sword sometimes, and when looking for a cause to back, we might do well to remember this powerful weapon against inequality at our disposal.

It’s easier said than done. Typing this sentence, I’m no longer wowed by the idea that I can tap abstract symbols on a keyboard to convey my meaning. You’re no longer wowed that you can read, digest and understand it.

So, be wowed. Let’s get out of our own way and get back behind literacy as a cause to fight for.

Let’s remember that Jesus is Teacher as well as the Great Physician and Prince of Peace. Start seeing literacy as the gift it is, one to be passed on and shared – and give thanks to policymakers, to educators, to God.

Pearce with BMS World Mission puts it this way: “There’s a need out there. Why keep education to ourselves?”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles this week for International Literacy Day (Sept. 8).

Hannah Watson

Hannah Watson is Editor of Engage, a BMS World Mission magazine.