Punishable by Death: The Quest for Literacy

The concept of basic literacy is taken for granted across much of the civilized world today — but there are still corners of the world where the simple ability to read and write are reserved only for an elite few. Most recently, young girls and women in such countries as Pakistan and Afghanistan have been killed, shot and threatened for simply seeking, or supporting, literacy rights.

Restricting the right to education is not a new concept, and has been used by groups in power for centuries. The Catholic Church prevented the Bible itself from being translated into the tongues of the common people for centuries, and celebrated mass in Latin only until the Reformation.

This was a deliberate effort on the part of the Catholic Rulers to prevent the education of the common folk since they could not read the Bible for themselves and were forced to depend on the clergy to provide instruction for their daily lives. An uneducated populace is easily ruled.

This is also what prompted James Madison to write centuries later: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Of course, in the newly formed United States, the same form of control and persecution existed. Many states had specific laws prohibiting the education of “persons of color.” The state of Georgia penal code read:

“Punishment for teaching slaves or free persons of color to read. — If any slave, Negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, Negro, or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the discretion of the court.”

Across the water in the British Isles, the English passed injunctions against the teaching of children by those of the Roman Catholic faith, mandating that all Irish children must be taught in English-sponsored schools by Anglican teachers, in order to convert the youth of Ireland away from “the popish faith” and make them more amenable to Protestant rule.

As late as 1825, the Protestant hierarchy petitioned the King, saying:

“amongst the ways to convert and civilise the Deluded People, the most necessary have always been thought to be that a sufficient number of English Protestant Schools be erected, wherein the Children of the Irish Natives should be instructed in the English Tongue and in the Fundamental Principles of the True Religion.”

In every case of education prohibition, the end goal was to repress a certain demographic, preventing them from becoming literate and gaining the potential to throw off oppression. Today, the primary groups of people being denied the opportunity to obtain education are female, and the perpetrators in most cases are patriarchal religious leaders. To such leaders, educated women are a threat. Preventing them from learning to read or write also prevents them from becoming independent, and maintains the status quo.

On July 4, 2012, an activist named Farida Afridi was shot and killed at the age of 25. Farida promoted women’s rights and education in Pakistan. On Oct. 9, 2012, a young teenaged girl named Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on a bus, for daring to attend school in the same country. Another Pakistani girl, Hina Khan, has since received death threats for attending school and speaking out for education rights.

In Afghanistan, female children attending the Zabuli Education Center (the only girls’ school for miles around) must wait until the school administrators test the well water for poison before getting a drink. Another school located in Kabul was targeted with over 100 hand grenades, and girls in the city have been sprayed with acid.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as many African countries, do not depend solely on government support for the non-education of women; in many areas the prevailing religion dictates that women remain secluded, illiterate and firmly subjugated. Organizations aimed at improving female education must battle not only government interference but religion driven political organizations, like the Taliban.

According to policy brief titled “Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa“:

  • As female education rises, fertility, population growth, and infant and child mortality fall and family health improves.
  • increases in girls’ secondary school enrollment are associated with increases in women’s
    participation in the labor force and their contributions to household and national income.
  • Women’s increased earning capacity, in turn, has a positive effect on child nutrition.
  • Children — especially daughters — of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in school and to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • Educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.

Access to education and literacy rights continue to be a matter of concern across the globe, as non-compliant countries continue to use non-education as a tool to subjugate large percentages of the population. Breaking this trend is the fastest and most effective way to raise up not only the groups targeted by such restrictions, but to improve the economy and health of the geographical regions thus affected.

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