Outside a small pharmacy in the dusty capital of Pakistan’s vast southwestern Balochistan Province, Zaitoon Bibi, 25, clutches two bottles of medicine. “One is for the cough and one is for fever. I hope I can remember which is which,” she says, looking worried.
Zaitoon’s two children, girls aged four and two, have been suffering from fever for over a week. “I was finally able to persuade my husband they needed medicine,” she said.
Like thousands of other women across Pakistan, Zaitoon finds her inability to read a significant handicap in her daily life. The lettering on the bottle makes no sense to her and she must depend on help from neighbours to read the instructions on dosage.
However, in the low-income shanty town where Zaitoon and her husband, a labourer, live, literate neighbours are not easy to find. According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), literacy still stands at only 50 percent in Pakistan.
In Balochistan, the least developed province, levels slump to 36 percent. Only 27 percent of women in the province, according to the government’s National Economic Survey of 2007, are literate, compared to a national average of around 45 percent, according to official data.
UNESCO's representative in Pakistan, Arshad Saeed Khan, said there were about 55 million illiterate people in Pakistan, and as a result “it risked failing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)”.
Literacy levels in Pakistan are today among the lowest in South Asia, with only Bangladesh and Nepal lagging slightly behind.
Impact on daily lives
The impact this has on lives is profound. “We now depend on our son, eight, to read. It is he who told us that he had read in the newspaper that tuberculosis was curable, and it was only then that we took my 14-year-old daughter to a clinic,” said Rehmatullah Khan, 50, the illiterate father of six.
His daughter is receiving treatment. Rehmatullah, who works as a night watchman, said he had allowed her to attend classes at a local community school.
“Now I know being able to read is important. If my son had not read that message, my daughter may have been dead,” he said.
It is not only in Balochistan that problems associated with illiteracy abound. The Punjab, the most populous province, has a literacy rate of 52 percent.
“The illiteracy issue becomes quite problematic. When neither the husband nor wife can read, they find it difficult to use birth control tablets effectively, or keep track of vaccination schedules for their children,” said Nasreen Akhtar, a “lady health worker” based in the town of Gujranwala, about 150km north of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab.
Others said the issue of literacy, apart from affecting employment and access to information, had a bigger impact. “Education gives people dignity and self-respect. It empowers them in many ways,” said I. A. Rehman, chief executive of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
A key factor in the failure to push up literacy rates is the fact that Pakistan allocates just around 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to education, experts said. UNESCO recommended an increase in this to at least 4 percent and has also said legislation for free secondary education, as a fundamental right, was urgently needed.
For many health workers, social activists and indeed people in general, the links between illiteracy, sickness and suffering are irrefutable. “When parents, especially mothers, can read even a little, the basic health needs of families - from post-natal care, to breastfeeding, to seeking medical attention when someone is sick - are much better taken care of,” said Akhtar.
In areas like Balochistan, or parts of the North West Frontier Province where literacy is only just over the 20 percent mark, these difficulties are especially acute.