1. Callister, Lynn Clark PhD, RN, FAAN

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I am volunteering at a Title I primary school in the western United States working with children who are socially disadvantaged, some of whom are immigrant and refugees. It is rewarding to look into the bright eager young faces of children who immigrated from Mexico as I read to them and encourage their first faltering steps to begin to read on their own. Their dedicated teacher gives the children in her classroom a book of their own as a Christmas gift, because some lack books in their homes. Early grade reading is an academic benchmark contributing to success throughout their lives.


Literacy has been defined as "the ability to read and write, to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials as well as the ability to solve problems in an increasingly technological and informational environment" (UNESCO, 2016, p. 146). The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide support for education ad literacy, with a focus on the importance of lifelong learning. It has been well documented that there are profound links between low literacy and poor health, poverty, and gender inequities. According to UNESCO, women account for two thirds of illiterate adults; an estimated 15 million school-age girls receive no formal education (Wetheridge, 2016). Countries in South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the lowest literacy rates, as well as wide gender disparities (Wetheridge). A study of 30 years of maternal mortality and female literacy rates in 143 developing countries concluded that declining maternal mortality ratios were significantly associated with female literacy (Pillai, Maleku, & Wei, 2013). Health literacy is clearly linked to the promotion of quality of life and wellbeing across the lifespan.


The SDG Goal 4 includes the aim to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all" ( Literacy links SDGs together as global partnerships are made to decrease illiteracy. The following global organizations are associated with exemplary initiatives that elevate literacy in the United States and middle- and low-resource countries. The UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning has expansive and multiple literacy components, including a "LitBase" Web site that provides information on successful world literacy programs. Those at UNESCO have advanced literacy since 1946. The ProLiteracy organization includes in their mission statement: "When individuals in the world over learn to read, write, do bath math and use computers, the more likely they are to lift themselves out of poverty" (


The World Literacy Foundation works with 3,920 groups across 25 countries, with one initiative being the implementation of the use of solar-powered tablet devices in Africa. The foundation also sponsors innovative programs such as the Center of Hope computer center in Uganda. The Global Literacy Project ships books and basic educational supplies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean ( partners with UNESCO, teaching workshops educating professionals how to promote literacy in developing countries ( Room to Read supports development of the habit of reading. Working in nine countries, Room to Read assists in development of culturally relevant reading materials in 25 different languages ( These are commendable organizations promoting the development of higher levels of literacy.


Twelve years ago, the global health and nursing column in this journal highlighted issues on literacy (Callister, 2007). With the inception of the SDGs and challenging global issues, I continue to urge that as nurses each of us become involved in literacy efforts beginning in homes and communities and extending worldwide. Small and simple strategies, such as the EveryDay Learners initiative by Women United, providing storytellers and books to Utah classrooms can extremely helpful. You too can make an important difference in supporting optimal health by promoting literacy.




Callister L. C. (2007). Improving literacy in women and girls globally. MCN. The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing, 32(3), 194. [Context Link]


Pillai V. K., Maleku A., Wei F. H. (2013). Maternal mortality and female literacy rates in developing countries during 1970-2000: A latent growth curve analysis. International Journal of Population Research.


UNESCO. (2016). Records of the General Conference, Paris, November 2015, 38th Session. Volume 1. Resolutions, UNESCO: Paris. [Context Link]


Wetheridge L. (2016). Girls' and women's literacy with a lifelong learning perspective: Issues, trends and implications for the Sustainable Development Goals. UNESCO: Paris. [Context Link]