By Izel Kipruto, Communications Officer, Twaweza East Africa

Every September 8, on International Literacy day, my thoughts go to the illiterate women in Kenya. A day that reminds me of the significant proportion of women who are illiterate. Illiteracy thwarts women to access opportunities resulting from technological advancement. For women to thrive, literacy is fundamental. This year’s theme, ‘Literacy in a digital world’ nudges us of the urgency to proliferate girls and women literacy acquisition. Indeed, literacy bolsters women ability to navigate the digital space.

Although the majority of Kenyans have access to mobile phones, illiteracy impedes full utilization of such gadgets, especially, among women in the marginalized communities. Ample evidence from the Uwezo learning assessment report indicate that 45 percent of Kenyan women cannot read a Standard Two level English story. Regrettably, regional disparities are glaring as 95 percent of the women in North Eastern cannot read a story. This situation jeopardizes the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 4.6 to ensure all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.

Literacy and technology connect us to friends and citizens who are miles away. We can traverse the world because of our ability to read the direction signs at the airport. Consequently, literacy give us a voice, it enables citizens to exercise agency and have a choice. People share WhatsApp messages and videos, post photos and activities on Facebook and trade online. Folks read newspapers online and through Twitter, citizens vent concerns when vexed with poor service delivery.

Despite this progress, some women are in total darkness. Think of Sophia, who resides in the remotest part of Kenya. Sophia owns a shop and trades basic household goods. She possesses a simple type of phone that she seldom uses to send and receive money via Mpesa[1], apart from making calls. Often, her son sends her greetings via text messages, but she rarely read. Moreover, Sophia struggles at the bank while trying to apply for a loan to ameliorate her business. More worryingly, Sophia do not know when she is making profits from her business. When sick and gets medicine, occasionally, she takes an overdose, she thinks ‘1×3’ means to take three pills at ago.

Today, parental illiteracy remains one of the main causes of inter-generational illiteracy. Sophia has seven children, two have dropped out, three are in school, but enrolled late and the remaining two have not attained school entry age. In school, while attending parents’ day meeting to be updated on the progress of children, Sophia rarely contributes to deliberations. She can’t engage teachers and hold them accountable. At home, she can neither help her children with homework nor read to them. Uwezo reports show that, nationally, 70 per cent of grade three children cannot read grade two level English story in Kenya. Evidently, improving learning outcomes will require investing in mothers’ literacy first.

Though optimistic about the future of her country, Sophia has no voice. Recently, in the ended general elections, she was incapable of casting an intelligent vote, she is illiterate. While she yearns to learn how to read and write, few or no adult literacy classes exist in her village. At the moment, the Uwezo report establishes that only 15 per cent of the villages visited in 2015 had adult learning centers. Illiteracy, coupled with other challenges such as penury and archaic traditions exclude Sophia from the digital space. This is the life illiterate women have to contend with.

The International Literacy Day serves to remind us that we must commit and prioritize literacy for girls and women. Technology is a game changer in solving some pressing challenges we face. But how will we benefit from technology when a substantial proportion women are illiterate? Surely, we need more of adult literacy programs.

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Ms. Izel Kipruto is a Communications Officer at Twaweza East Africa and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow. For Feedback, send email to ikipruto@twaweza.org

[1] M-Pesa is a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service, launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania.