Colombo Telegraph

International Literacy Day – Youth & Literacy

By Samya Senaratne –

Samya Senaratne

September 8th was declared as International Literacy Day (ILD) at the 14th session of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) General Conference on 26 October 1966. Since its inception in 1967, ILD celebrations have taken place annually around the world to remind the public of the importance of literacy; the ability to read and write, as a source of human dignity as well as a basic human right. Advocating increased literacy on this day is of critical importance, given that UNESCO has revealed in its 2017 Global Education Monitoring Report that around 264 million youngsters do not attend school.

This global celebration of the value of literacy therefore seeks to help advance the literacy agenda towards sustainable socio-economic development. Celebrations of International Literacy Day have since 1967, focused on specific themes, such as the ‘Education For All’ movement (2000-2015) and United Nations programme ‘Literacy Decade’ launched in 2003. The theme of ILD- 2018 is ‘Literacy and skills development’. The focus this year is therefore more on youth and their life-long experience of learning and acquisition of skills. It is pertinent that the impact of literacy on global and Sri Lankan youth be discussed.

Integrating Literacy and Youth Skill Development

The integration of literacy with skill development goes back to the late 1950s when the concept of ‘functional literacy’ gained currency and ‘farmer’s school models’ combined literacy with employability. In the same vein, UNESCO recognizes ‘skills’ as encompassing the knowledge and competencies required for employment, careers, and livelihoods, particularly technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills. Accordingly, from hairdressing, construction, 3D-modelling to communication skills, teamwork and leadership, these different skills can be enhanced through literacy, building an economically independent and confident young generation who will contribute to the creation of a sustainable future.

The Sri Lankan education system is highly academic and does not focus a lot on technical/vocational skills of students. In Sri Lanka, the Labour force Survey of 2015 indicate that men who studied only up to age 11-15 and women who studied up to age 19 comprise the majority of the unemployed population. These capable youth can be empowered through providing them with technical, transferable and digital skills. The National Vocational Qualifications Systems in Sri Lanka (NVQSL) managed by the Ministry of Vocational & Technical Training offers a structured seven-level vocational qualification towards this end.

Vocational education and training degrees are also offered at the Open University, the University of Vocational Technology, as well as Diplomas by 37 technical colleges and agriculture schools. Apart from these, the Ministry of Education has newly launched a non-formal vocational education program which allows ‘school drop-outs’ and ‘adults who did not complete their school education’, to earn a living, through self-employment in a vast range of fields such as dressmaking, beauty culture, hairdressing, stitching, carpentry, plumbing, painting etc.

As the 2002 World Bank Review Report on Skills and Literacy Training indicates, the possibility of concrete and immediate benefits in the form of income generation especially motivates learners to proactively participate in such trainings. Therefore, in the backdrop of UNESCO’s ‘Global Monitoring Report on Education for All’ (2006) identifying a clear connection between illiteracy and countries in severe poverty, such an integrated approach can be very effective in mobilizing the youth to combat poverty by increasing employability and entrepreneurial skills. This theme is of special relevance to a country like Sri Lanka situated in the South Asian Region which has the lowest regional adult literacy rate (58.6%), despite sustaining a 92% literacy rate nationally.

Globalization, Digitization and Upgrading the Skills

Even though the global adult literacy rate (15 years and above) has progressed from 81% in 2000 to 86% in 2016, UNESCO reports that six out of ten children and adolescents are not achieving minimum literacy requirements. And if the world continues in passive inaction, many of the estimated 264 million out-of-school children in 2017 will eventually grow up be part of the future illiterate adult population. Therefore, International Literacy Day which advocates the indispensable and inherent value of literacy and consequent personal development, addresses a key contemporary youth-related issue.

Globalization and fast-advancing digital technology are transforming ways in which people work, live and learn, and are generating new skill demands. In Sri Lanka overall digital literacy rate is at a low 38.7%, an unnerving 16% in the estate sector and 9% among the elderly population of 60 and above. The inability to keep up with rapid technology changes and dissemination of ICT knowledge and infrastructure is resulting in unemployment and livelihood challenges that particularly affect young people, women and other disadvantaged groups. This is substantiated by the ILO (2018), reporting that while the global unemployment rate reached 5.6 % in 2017, the rate among youth was at a higher 13 %. Sri Lankan statistics reflect a similar trend where in 2014, the highest age-group based unemployment rates  was among the youth aged 15-24 (24%), which is around 6 times the unemployment rates among adults above 30 (3%). Thus, education systems in the poorer regions must rethink their capacity and skill development programmes, take youth’s interests in to account, offer more learning pathways and incorporate multi-stakeholder involvement such as Google initiative ‘Digital Skills for Africa’ which committed to train 1 million Africans on digital skills within a year.

Need for Useful and Streamlined Skill Sets 

As well as the issue of out-of-school children, which the Sri Lankan government seek to tackle with regulations under the Education Ordinance of 1939 by raising the age of compulsory school attendance in Sri Lanka from 14 to 16 years, UNESCO also identifies that youth entering apprenticeships lack the literacy skills needed to succeed in the increasingly globalizing world. And even the acquired skills often do not match the employment engaged in. 

An apprenticeship is a contract of learning where the main motive for employment is not remuneration but gaining knowledge and skills of the trade. National Apprenticeship and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) which is established by the Tertiary and Vocational Education Act 1990 regulates apprenticeship/trainee contracts in the public sector. However, in the private sector, apprenticeships are not regulated by an overseeing authority like NAITA, but are employed under the Employment of Trainees (Private Sector) Law of 1978 and under respective Wages Boards established for particular trades. Due to this lacuna, apprentices in the private sector are not protected from inadequate and unsatisfactory training which might not tally with the required skill set. The lack of information in most developing states regarding the labour market demand for skills and on actual skill levels of the population is a hurdle for youth skill development that has to be overcome though policy changes.

2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and Youth

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have generated a new incentive for collective efforts to address skills challenges. The conjoined nature of SDGs urges integrated approaches and multi-sectoral collaboration as elaborated above. This helps improve not only skill/literacy of youth but also improve conditions and environments required for learners to acquire and advance, to lead to better social and development. In this respect, two SDGs are particularly relevant, namely SDG 4 to ‘Ensure equitable and quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ and SDG 8 to ‘Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’. The Targets and Indicative Strategies for SDG 4 which are included in Education 2030 strategy and SDG 8 emphasize the importance of labour market outcomes of literacy and skills development programmes such as, youth Not in Education, Employment and Training (NEET).

It is evident that youth of a country need to be equipped with new skill- related literacy to progress and compete with the vicissitudes of contemporary globalized world. In keeping with this concern, the 2018 International Literacy day, themed ‘Literacy and skills development’ focuses on the enabling the global youth to achieve sustainable social outcomes- for themselves as individuals, and for their communities as the drivers of sustainable development of a country.


  1. UNESCO, International Literacy Day 2018-Literacy and Skills Development, Concept Note.
  2. Department of Census and Statistics, Unemployed Population by age group, Sri Lanka Labour force Survey, 2015.
  3. Department of Census and Statistics, Unemployed Population by level of Education, Sri Lanka Labour force Survey, 2015.
  4. Ian Redahunsi, Opportunities For Africans (OFA), ‘Google launches Digital Skills for Africa Online Portal for Young Africans’ (October 27, 2017).
  5. White Paper, Skillsoft, ‘What are digital skills? A comprehensive definition for modern organizations’.
  6. United Nations-Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, SDG 4 and 8- Progress and information (2017).
  7. Daily Mirror, ‘Literacy and Sri Lanka’ (September 11, 2017).
  8. Oxenham, J. et al., (2002) Skills and Literacy Training for Better Livelihoods: A Review of Approaches and Experiences. The World Bank.
  9. International Labour Organization (2018) World Employment Social Outlook: Trends 2018.
  10. UNESCO (2018) Global Education Monitoring Report 2017/2018. Paris: UNESCO.
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