Reflections on literacy status and challenges in Malawi


By Limbani Eliya Nsapato:


In 1966 Unesco proclaimed September 8 as International Literacy Day (ILD) to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human right. Since then, while ILDs have been held annually, Unesco has periodically convened International Conferences on Adult Education (Cinfintea) where major policy issues about literacy and education have been debated and resolved.

The latest Cinfintea (No 6) was held in 2009 in Belem, Brazil where delegates from 156 Unesco member states affirmed literacy as “the most significant foundation upon which to build comprehensive, inclusive and integrated life-long and life-wide learning for all young people and adults”.


But what is literacy? Why all the hullabaloo about literacy? Literacy is defined as a continuum of learning and proficiency in reading, writing and using numbers, from a lifelong learning perspective. Education, in general, and literacy, in particular, harbours many positive contributions towards economic and sustainable development, a view propounded by human capital theorists such as Schultz (1961), Wills (2015) and Psacharopoulos & Patrinos (2018).

In 2015, Wils reported that each additional year of education is associated with an 18 percent higher Gross Domestic Product per capita. He added that among young adults on average, for each additional year of education poverty rates were 9 percent lower, revealing that poverty rates declined with each level of education.

In Malawi, Matita and Chirwa demonstrated in 2009 that one additional year of schooling increased lifetime earnings by 10 percent on average, by 9.7 percent among male workers and 11.4 percent among female workers. Education contributes 3 percent to the GDP which is estimated at K6.7 trillion according to the 2020 annual economic report by Ministry of Finance.


In 2020, the world has been confronted by a health crisis courtesy of the coronavirus which led to closure of schools and other learning institutions in March in the country. People, who are literate and educated, are healthier and, so, more resilient to infections or diseases such as Covid-19.

In 2017, the education sector plan review unveiled that the highest rates of HIV and Aids prevalence were for those with no education (12.3 percent) and those with more than secondary education (10.2 percent). For those with primary or secondary levels, the prevalence rates were 8.4 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively. Hence, higher levels of literacy are needed to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

It is clear from the stats above that inability to read and write at basic levels of proficiency and to actively participate in an increasingly literate and digitised world is potentially a source of exclusion and a major barrier to engaging more actively in political, social, cultural and economic activities.

Furthermore, correlation studies show that societies that have a literacy rate of below 60 percent would have difficulties in achieving sustainable development. According to data posted on World Bank website the average literacy rate for low-income countries is 63 percent, while it is 77 percent for lower middle-income countries and 86 percent for middle income countries. In Sub-Sahara Africa where most of the low-income countries are found, the average literacy rate is 66 percent.

Given their high benefits to society, governments need to invest substantially in education and literacy programmes. In 2012 Unesco Institute of Statistics and Pôle de Dakar reported that “underinvestment in education by the public sector results in households picking up large portions of their children’s education bills” and this would be tricky and hindrance to literacy in a country like Malawi where the majority of the population earn below the poverty line of $2 a day and may rather spend the little they get towards survival rather than literacy or education.

Sixty-four years since the proclamation of ILD, Unesco member states including Malawi marked the day through several activities that allowed stakeholders to reflect on the status, success and challenges of literacy in society. A theme is always selected to celebrate the day, and for 2020 Unesco the focus is on “Literacy teaching and learning in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond with a focus on the role of educators and changing pedagogies”.

So, what is the state of affairs? How literate is Malawi and what are the issues requiring urgent action? There is some positive news that one would celebrate about in 2020.

One significant piece of news is that government through the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare approved the National Adult Literacy and Education Policy in February after many years of drafting and advocacy. The absence of the policy created, among other things, considerable coordination and governance problems in the provision of services, especially between government and various non-state partners.

The goal of the policy is to reduce illiteracy levels and enhance skills development and education among adults and targeted youths for effective participation in socio-economic development. The policy has four priority areas, which are: coordination and collaboration; access, relevance and quality; visibility and awareness; and resource mobilisation. The policy will thus give government and stakeholders the much-needed direction to accelerate achievement of literacy goals in relation to the four priority areas.

The second news is that over the past ten years, the literacy rate has improved by 4 percentage points. Results of the 2018 Population and Household Census showed that the country’s literacy rate increased from 64 percent in 2008 to 68.6 percent in 2018. In 2018, there were 15 million Malawians aged 5 years and above, and out of whom 10 million were literate including 5.2 million males and 5.1 million females. Over the 10 years the number of literate people has increased by 3.2 million from 6.8 million in 2008 (3.6 million males and 3.2 million females).

Beyond the policy and literacy increase there is hardly anything else positive to write home about due to issues and challenges in the literacy sub-sector. The first issue is that the literacy rate is very low compared to other countries. While the literacy rate of 68.6 percent in Malawi is higher than the Sub-Saharan African average of 66 percent, it is the fourth lowest in the Sadc region, higher than Comoros (59 percent), Mozambique (61 percent) and Angola (66 percent).

Countries with literacy rates above Malawi include Seychelles (96 percent), Namibia (92 percent), Zimbabwe (89 percent), Eswatini (88 percent), Cape Verde (87 percent), Zambia (87 percent), Botswana (87 percent), Tanzania (78 percent), Lesotho (77 percent), South Africa (77 percent), Madagascar (77 percent) and DRC (77 percent).

Secondly, even though the literacy rate has improved over the past 10 years, the number of illiterate Malawians has increased by 0.9 million from 3.8 million in 2008 to 4.7 million in 2018. Interestingly, the number of illiterate males has increased by 0.6 million, while the number of illiterate females has decreased by the same amount, which could show that the literacy programmes are benefitting more females than males. In fact, literacy programmes are being shunned by males who make up of 17 percent of total enrolment as compared to 83 percent for females, which is a 66 percent gap.

The third cause for concern relates to equity and inclusion, since there are serious disparities across gender, disability and location. In terms of gender, literacy access disfavours females. The number of illiterate females (2.6 million) is higher than for males (2.1 million) and by consequence, literacy rate for females (66 percent) is lower than for males (72 percent), showing a 6 percent gap.

In formal education, whereas 2.4 million children are out of school, at primary where the total number of out of school children is 1,016,202, boys (516,619) outnumber girls (499,583) while at secondary where the total number of out of school children is 1,372,806, boys (698,754) also outnumber girls (674,052), meaning there is need for effort to ensure boys get in school.

However, for the in-school population, the gender parity index is around 1.02 at primary and 0.94 at secondary, while females make up 36 percent of higher education enrolment. This suggests that enrolment is skewed against females in higher levels of education.

Furthermore, in relation to inclusion, persons with disabilities are generally excluded from adult literacy programmes and the entire education system. While persons with disabilities constitute 10.4 percent of the population in Malawi only 3.3 percent are enrolled in primary schools, 2.4 percent in secondary schools and 0.2 percent in tertiary learning institutions. In terms of location, rural populations in Malawi are more disadvantaged than urban populations.

Literacy data shows that rural districts have literacy rates below the national average of 68.6 percent. Districts with lowest literacy rates include Mangochi (53 percent), Nsanje (56 percent), Machinga and Dedza (57 percent) and Chikwawa (58 percent). On the other hand, urban districts have higher literacy rate averaging 90 percent and these include Mzuzu city (91 percent), Blantyre city (91 percent), Zomba city (90 percent) and Lilongwe city (87 percent). At regional level, Northern Region whose literacy rate is 79 percent has a 12 percent advantage compared to central region (67 percent) and Southern region (67 percent).

The fourth issue is weak capacity to deliver literacy programmes. The new national literacy and education policy promises to enrol at least 1.5 million learners in the literacy classes after five years, translating into an annual intake of at least 300,000. However, with only 10,000 literacy centres and 8000 literacy instructors the country can only enrol up to 150,000 annually, which is 50 percent of annual target.

Linked to the issue above, the fifth challenge is underfunding. Public investment in literacy programmes is very weak with the annual budget for literacy programmes ranging from K50 million to K100 million over the period 2003/4 to 2016/2017. Cinfintea 6 challenged governments to allocate at least 6 percent of the GDP to education and 3 percent of education budget to adult literacy programs.

In Malawi the targets have been missed with around 4 percent of GDP being allocated to education over the past two financial years and less than 1 percent of the education budget being provided to literacy even as basic education receives over 50 percent of the education budget. Very few donors and NGOs are interested in financing and implementing literacy programmes which makes the sub-sector suffer from perennial underfunding.

Sixth, coordination has been one of the biggest challenges in implementation of literacy programmes. Literacy programmes are largely understaffed and underfinanced at national and district level which makes it difficult for the coordinating Ministry (Ministry of Gender) to have adequate personnel to coordinate the programmes at different levels.

Some radical thinkers feel that another bigger ministry such as Ministry of Education or Ministry of Labour should host literacy programmes to help raise the profile of literacy and improve coordination altogether.

This is a controversial suggestion which requires broad consultations to reach consensus. In addition, literacy programmes cut across several ministries including Ministries of Agriculture, labour, education etc, but there is little cooperation and political will at higher level of these ministries which makes it difficult to adequately implement policies and strategies.

Last but not least, in view of Covid-19, there is higher demand to go digital and embrace open distance and eLearning within the education system. However, this is a big challenge to Malawi due to limited access to equipment and affordable internet data services. Recent data shows that as of 2018, of the total households in Malawi (3,984,981), 51.7 percent had a mobile phone, 33.6 percent had a radio, 11.8 percent had a television and 16.4 percent had access to the internet.

This makes it difficult to transfer literacy content via digital platforms which require mobile connectively. Moreover, Malawi is one of the countries with high cost of internet data making it hard for most Malawians especially those in rural areas to access internet services. Consequently, when schools were closed in March due to Covid-19 threat, youth and adult literacy sector could not migrate to virtual learning because that could have effectively left out the majority of Malawians.

Faced with this litany of issues and challenges there is a great need for stakeholders in the literacy sub-sector to innovate, think out of the box and come up with lasting solution in order to achieve the national literacy goals and objectives. There is a great need to inject more innovative staff, embrace ICT and train existing staff to be up to date in terms of the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to overturn the illiteracy jinx in the country.

In addition, government needs to provide adequate funding to the coordinating Ministry to ensure funds are readily available to establish more literacy centres, train, recruit and motivate literacy instructors, procure adequate teaching and learning materials and make literacy instruction more disability-friendly.

This requires development of a robust fundraising and resource mobilisation strategy in order to attract more donors and partners and ensure strong lobby and advocacy for allocation of more resources to the programmes. There is also a great need to establish a strong inter-ministerial committee that should oversee literacy and education programmes and facilitate coordination, networking and learning around literacy programmes.

Furthermore, the content of literacy programmes should be made more attractive to men in particular, by introducing livelihoods and business projects that provide more income-generating opportunities for participants.

Furthermore, there is need to develop a strong strategy for addressing inequalities around gender, disability and geographical location in order to provide more opportunities to disadvantaged groups and reduce disparities across the country, given that disparities perpetuate poverty by widening the gap between the rich and the poor.

In light of Covid-19, government should strengthen its partnership with the private sector and research institutions to improve access to ICT services and develop and expand open and distance eLearning opportunities for youth and adult education learners.

The development of the national literacy and education policy should provide renewed impetus to strengthen literacy programmes in the country. This requires political will, strong advocacy as well as concerted action amongst the key stakeholders such as government, NGOs, private sector, training institutes, donors and people of good will.

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