Recent figures show that Portugal’s level of adult illiteracy stands at nine per cent, the worst rate in the European Union. Illiterates, often living in rural areas, cannot write their own name, are incapable of filling out tax forms and cheques or fulfilling the most basic written tasks that most of us take for granted. Adult illiteracy frequently prevents people from feeling like full citizens and fulfilling their potential in society.
As the country marked World Literacy Day this week, educational experts feel that the time has come to apply more resources to a problem that has not received enough attention. “We are in a country where illiteracy numbers are almost as high as the number of graduates – nine per cent,” says sociologist Licínio Lama.
Information from the National Statistics Office reveals that there are more than 800,000 illiterates, compared to just over a million graduates. In the meantime, details from a census carried out in 2001 reveal that almost one and a half million people have had no education at all. “These figures are terrible and should compel us to invest more heavily in education,” says the sociologist.
The reasons for Portugal’s high illiteracy rates are perceived as historical. “Through the 19th and 20th centuries, we never really gave priority to education – this has a lot to do with our rural society and with the authoritarian regime we endured for so long,” says Lima. “Even after the 1974 revolution, there was no effective response to these questions,” he stresses.
Although illiteracy levels have fallen since the 70s, from 25 per cent down to nine per cent in the 2001 census, Lima still thinks authorities have neglected education. “This happened because the elderly population was dying off.We did very little and continued to wait for natural selection to rectify the problem. But expectations have now increased and yet there are still no educational policies in place for adult illiterates.”
Carlos Midões, from the Working Group of Lifelong Education, part of the National Federation of Teachers, says there has never been any policy in place to train adults. “With so many illiterates, there are unemployed teachers who could make a contribution. This is a crisis that we must address urgently”.
The highest illiteracy rates are currently recorded in the interior of the country, particularly in the Alentejo, where the illiteracy rate is 15.9 per cent.The lowest illiteracy rate, 5.7 per cent, is recorded in Lisbon. In all areas of the country, illiteracy levels among women far exceed men.