The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
April 24, 2006

Mrs. Bush's Remarks at the UNESCO Education for All Week Luncheon
Blair House
Washington, D.C.

11:41 A.M. EDT

MRS. BUSH: Thank you, Secretary Spellings, for the very kind introduction, and for the great work that you're doing for young people.

I also want to thank Ambassador Ensenat and the State Department for hosting this event. Learning -- whether it's about other cultures and countries, or about ourselves -- is at the heart of diplomacy. So I appreciate your bringing us together today to discuss how we can better educate the world's children.

Mrs. Laura Bush speaks to an audience that includes 35 ambassadors representing countries with extreme adult/child illiteracy rates, Monday, April 24, 2006, during a luncheon celebrating the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizational (UNESCO), Education for All Week, at the Blair House in Washington, D.C. Education for All is an international effort coordinated by UNESCO to make the benefits of education accessible to all people. White House photo by Shealah Craighead I'd also like to acknowledge UNESCO's Assistant Director General for Education, Peter Smith. Peter, thank you so much for joining us today. And, of course, I want to thank all of Your Excellencies, the very distinguished ambassadors who are here with us. We're joined today by all of the female ambassadors here in Washington, and I knew there was a reason Ambassador Ensenat was looking so sharp. (Laughter.) So thank you, ambassadors. Thank you for coming, and for your commitment to education.

We're also joined by a number of people that I've known since my husband was governor, as we've worked on reading issues, first in Texas and then in the United States. Some experts in literacy are here with you today. I think maybe everyone has at least one expert on literacy at their table, so I hope you'll get to know them and talk to them.

As the Honorary Ambassador of the United Nations Literacy Decade, I'm happy to be with you to mark the beginning of Education for All Week, and to talk about why Every Child Needs a Teacher.

All of us can remember the teachers who made a difference in our lives. Margaret just told us about her Ms. Brown. My favorite was my second grade teacher, Ms. Gnagy. I wanted to grow up and be just like her. And I did, so I became a teacher, and then a librarian. And I was with her last week in Midland, Texas, when I was out there when the George Bush childhood home was dedicated, the home that President George Bush Number 41, as we call him, and President Bush Number 43 and Governor Jeb Bush from Florida all lived in in the 1950s. It was a house the Bushes bought in 1951. And while I was there, my second grade teacher, Ms. Gnagy, was there at the luncheon, and George's second grade teacher, Ms. Watson, was there, as well. (Laughter.) So that's so fun to have this long history with teachers that meant so much to us.

I know that who we are today, all of us, every one of us in this room, who we are is because of teachers that we had throughout our lives. Many children across the globe, though, are growing up without teachers and without any hope for a formal education. Around the world, more than 100 million children do not have access to schools. The situation is especially serious in Africa, where HIV/AIDS is devastating the teaching population.

Training more teachers is vital to UNESCO's goal of making sure every child has access to a basic, quality education by 2015. This is important for every country, but especially for developing countries, where limited resources often mean that the neediest children are not educated. We have to make sure that all children -- boys and girls, rich and poor -- have access to a good education.

One of the best ways we can improve educational opportunities for all is by spreading literacy. And one of the most important reasons every child should have a teacher is so that every child can learn to read.

There's no such thing as a quality, basic education for a person who cannot read or write. Reading is the bedrock on which the entire mind is built -- one book, one essay, one instruction manual at a time. And reading doesn't just allow people to enjoy literary treasures. It allows them to become entrepreneurs, or engineers, or lawmakers, or doctors. In villages around the world, mothers who read can then teach their children how to read. Literate mothers can also participate in their economies, and they can earn a living for themselves and their families. So widespread literacy isn't a luxury for healthy societies -- it's a basic requirement.

Across the globe, more than 800 million people are illiterate. Eighty-five percent of them live in just 34 countries, concentrated in regions affected by poverty. And more than two-thirds of the 771 million adults who cannot read a simple book, or write a basic sentence, are women.

I've visited many countries around the world, and I've seen how efforts to expand literacy are improving lives, especially for women and girls.

Last year, I visited the Women's Teacher Training Institute in Kabul, which was established through a partnership between the government of Afghanistan and USAID. At the Institute, which is also a dorm so that women who come in from the provinces to study have a safe place to live, women are then trained to be teachers. Then they go home and they train more teachers in a cascading effect with an attempt to train about 6,000 teachers in a very short amount of time so that the schools in Afghanistan, as they're being rebuilt, will have teachers.

In January, I was in Ghana, at the Accra Teacher Training College. Ghana is participating in the Textbooks and Learning Materials Program. As part of the program, six American universities, minority-serving universities, have partnered with six African countries to produce and distribute 15 million primary school textbooks -- that would be kindergarten through eighth grade textbooks -- for African students. The Textbook program is part of President Bush's African Education Initiative, a $600 million commitment that's already helped to train more than 300,000 teachers in sub-Saharan Africa.

And these textbooks, in the Textbook program, will be published in Africa. They'll be written with the help of these U.S. universities, with African educators, so that the books are Africa-centric, they're traditional, they talk about things that children who are studying them know about and live with every day.

Then, last month in Pakistan, I met with teachers and students involved in UNESCO and Children Resources International programs that improve teacher training and promote family literacy. I talked with Mehnaz Aziz, the Pakistan country director for Children's Resources International. Mehnaz shared with me how over the last three years, CRI has been training teachers in new methodologies. Before, teachers lacked instructional materials, and they used rote memorization and corporal punishment. Now they have money for school buildings, teaching aids and materials, and children can learn through drama and art.

Mehnaz also told me that before, parents had little involvement with their children's schools. But now mothers were coming, Mehnaz said. "It's one of the big changes. Reading -- the mothers are also learning, reading books, and reading with their children."

Teaching people to read and write is about more than just improving literacy skills. Another Pakistani educator, Fakhira Najib, said to me, "The students aren't just learning reading and writing. They're curious now." These are just some of the examples of the difference a commitment to education and literacy is making worldwide. These strides come at such an important time, as we witness a tide of freedom spreading across the globe. This is not a coincidence. Literacy and freedom are inseparable.

Literacy is the foundation of personal freedom. Being able to read, and choosing what we read, is how we shape our beliefs, our minds, and our characters. Reading brings self-reliance and independence. For many women and their children, literacy can even mean the difference between life and death. A mother who can read can understand the label on a food container. She knows how to follow the instructions on a bottle of medicine. She's more likely to make wise decisions about her life that will keep her and her children healthy.

Literacy is the foundation of economic freedom. Free markets require informed consumers, and that means consumers who can read. Wider literacy also increases economic participation, which leads to more stable and vibrant economies. When we launched the U.N. Literacy Decade in New York, we were joined by a woman from the Philippines, Pampay Usman. Growing up, Pampay didn't have the opportunity to go to school. And although she couldn't read or write, she was able to manage a small market. You can imagine how hard and frustrating her work was, because she couldn't write down the names of her customers, or the goods they bought. She had to remember their faces, and every item they purchased.

The day Pampay joined an adult literacy class in her village, her life changed forever. She learned to write her name and address. She learned to read prices on groceries, and her business grew. Pampay is an example of how teaching one woman to read can lead to greater prosperity for herself and for the others who depend upon her.

Literacy is also the basis of political freedom. Around the world, more and more countries are embracing democracy and liberty. But for people to participate in a democracy, they have to be educated about their country's laws and traditions, which means they have to be able to read.

We saw this last October, when millions of copies of Iraq's draft constitution were printed and distributed to voters. Millions of Iraqis read their proposed charter, and then braved the threat of violence to cast their ballots. They risked their lives for a written document, language that enshrines their rights, and charts their future course for their new democracy.

Literacy improves the lives of mothers and children. Literacy boosts economies. And literacy helps people make good, informed decisions about their health.

Today, I'm delighted to announce that this September, during the opening of the 61st session of the U.N. General Assembly, we'll convene a Conference on Global Literacy in New York. Working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and UNESCO, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization, we'll be looking at literacy programs that work, and connecting countries with the information they need to implement similar programs. The Conference will also encourage leaders from around the world to become involved in literacy in their own countries, and then to learn ways to support UNESCO's goal of Education for All by 2015.

This week, as we work to make sure that Every Child Has a Teacher, it's important to remember that we're all teachers. A person who's never stood by a blackboard still teaches by example. By demonstrating our commitment to literacy, we can let millions of people know that reading and writing are important.

So thank you for having me here today. Thank you for your commitment to education. And I hope I'll see you at the Conference in New York in September. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

END 11:55 A.M. EDT

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