On the eve of the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, First Lady Laura Bush will be in New York Monday to host an international conference on global literacy initiatives. Education officials from nine countries previewed the conference in New York this week.
White House officials say, traveling around the world, Laura Bush recognized the power of literacy to change lives. Expanding literacy among women and girls is a key objective of the conference.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - UNESCO - there are more than 771-million adults around the world, who cannot read, and more than two-thirds of them are women.
Hasina Mojadidi, a literacy instructor from Afghanistan, says, despite reluctance to educate women in her country, people are gradually seeing the benefits. "We had a very hard time at the beginning to introduce the project, which is (successfully) working for women, and asking the women to go to someone else's house to study. There was a man, who wouldn't let his wife go to classes. Since she was very interested, she went without his permission. And, she had learned something, and she had asked her husband a question he couldn't answer. She said, 'I know the answer, and I learned it from this literacy class.' And he was very willing after that to send even his daughter to attend classes," she said.
The educators say the conference will focus on three initiatives for combating global illiteracy, including teaching mothers to read and to pass that skill on to their children. The other two initiatives are aimed at improving reading skills, so adults can make informed decisions about health issues, and ways to use literacy to build basic business skills.
Conference participants believe women have a key role in spreading literacy. The skills women learn are passed on to their families, beginning a cycle of literacy that is shared from one generation to the next.
Speaking through an interpreter, Salah Sabri Sebeh, head of Egypt's education sector, says learning to read is a catalyst for change in all of society. "We believe that the best way to change a society is to get those people who have the least amount of wealth in society to be able to take care of themselves, and to become empowered, so that they can actually change society from the base up," he said.
The strategies of these officials will be featured on the White House Web site for global literacy: www.globalliteracy.gov.