Literacy rates continue to rise from one generation to the next. Yet according to new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, there are still 750 million illiterate adults, two-thirds of whom are women. These numbers are a stark reminder of the work ahead to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 4 and 5 and the Education 2030 targets.

The latest data, presented in a new fact sheet and illustrated in the UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy, show remarkable progress in youth literacy. 50 years ago, 22% of people between the ages of 15 and 24 lacked basic literacy skills compared to 9% today, and young people in Africa and Asia, in particular, are far more likely to be literate than they were half a century ago.

For the first time, the UIS has produced annual regional-level literacy estimates based on national data and UIS projections from 1990 to 2016. Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, Southern Asia, and Northern Africa and Western Asia have made the greatest progress in improving adult literacy over the past 26 years. In Southern Asia, the adult literacy rate rose from 46% in 1990 to 72% in 2016. For the other regions, the change in adult literacy over the same period was as follows: Northern Africa and Western Asia from 64% to 81%, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia from 82% to 96%, sub-Saharan Africa from 52% to 65%, and Latin America and Caribbean from 85% to 94%.

The youth literacy rate increased the most in Southern Asia (from 59% in 1990 to 89% in 2016), Northern Africa and Western Asia (from 80% to 90%) and sub-Saharan Africa (from 65% to 75%).

Young women continue to lag behind young men

Despite the progress, gender disparity in youth literacy remains persistent in almost one in five countries, as shown in the eAtlas. In 43 countries, mainly located in Northern Africa and Western Asia, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, young women aged 15 to 24 years are still less likely than young men to have basic reading and writing skill. This is a clear sign of the persistent challenges that continue to hold girls back.

The data in the new UIS fact sheet provide valuable baselines for the measurement of literacy progress and the identification of pitfalls, but they also reinforce the urgent need for greater investment in literacy and numeracy programmes around the world if the SDG literacy goal is to be met by 2030.

To this end, the UIS is working with a wide range of countries and partners through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) to develop the standards and methodologies needed to measure learning globally, while helping countries to produce and use the information to achieve SDG 4.