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

For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
February 13, 2003

Mrs. Bush's Remarks at UNESCO -- A Decade of Literacy
New York Public Library
New York City, New York

Thank you, Mr. Matsuura, for your warm welcome. Welcome, President Bagabandi and the First Lady of Mongolia, to the United States. Thank you for your support to make this Decade of Literacy a reality. Welcome, your Royal Highness Princess Firyal of Jordan. And thank you, Secretary General Annan, Dr. Paige, Ambassadors Negroponte and Luers, and Dr. LeClerc. Each of you inspires us with your commitment to education and I am privileged to serve with you as the Honorary Ambassador for the Decade of Literacy.

The New York Public Library in New York City is the perfect place to launch the Decade of Literacy. This library and this city exemplify what we hope the next decade will bring to every corner of the world -- knowledge and freedom. Since immigrants first arrived here, New York has stood as a symbol of freedom to the world. And the New York Public Library has served New York's readers for more than a century.

In this library is Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Declaration of Independence. This document inspired a free America -- one where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be realized through education for all. Today, as we embark upon a Decade of Literacy, we commit ourselves to this promise for every man, woman and child.

All people deserve the opportunity to learn to read and write. Literacy is a precondition to education. But one in five people in the world can not read. Nearly 900 million adults in the world are illiterate -- and 113 million children who are not in school risk the same fate. Today, education for all must not just be an ideal -- it must be a reality. Advancing education is fundamental to the development of nations and of generations. Through this Decade of Literacy, governments will commit to bring universal and gender-equal education and greater literacy to the world. These are not simply goals for the next decade -- these are moral responsibilities every nation must embrace.

For people throughout the world, literacy is freedom -- the freedom to learn independently and continuously throughout life. Literacy gives us the freedom to transform ourselves from who we are to who we want to become. Literacy gave Pampay Usman the freedom to become a better mother and citizen. Pampay traveled here from the Philippines to share her inspiring story. She spoke earlier this morning to help launch the Decade of Literacy.

Growing up in the Philippines, Pampay did not have the opportunity to go to school. After she married, she stayed home with her children. Although she could not read or write, Pampay managed a small market. It was hard and frustrating work. She couldn't write the names of her neighbors or the goods they bought on credit. She had to remember their faces and every item they purchased. She couldn't go to the market alone because she couldn't read the price of groceries or the street signs to find her way home.

The day Pampay joined an adult literacy class in her small village, her life changed forever. She learned how to write her name and address. She learned to read prices on groceries. Her business grew. She was able to vote in the elections and to write the candidates' names herself. Pampay said, "Literacy brings trust and confidence in my life."

For people throughout the world, literacy is also power -- the power to reshape their communities and their own destinies. It's the power to improve socially and financially. In Brazil, literacy is empowering entire communities through the Solidarity in Literacy Program. Companies in Brazil adopt neighborhoods with high illiteracy rates and citizens adopt students. Last year, 170 thousand teachers helped 3.6 million students learn to read and write. Literacy rates have increased dramatically in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. The benefits of the Solidarity in Literacy Program have extended beyond literacy. In participating districts, improvements have been made in schools and in public services, including lighting, transportation and sanitation.

For people throughout the world, literacy is also an opportunity -- the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families. Learning to read and write English provided Alma and her family with the opportunity for a new life in America. Alma immigrated to the United States from Mexico nearly 15 years ago. She had a nursing degree, but she couldn't get a job. She knew little English and was frustrated because communicating with others was difficult. Alma and her family joined a literacy program in Texas and they learned to read and write English. Today Alma and her husband have earned their American high school diplomas. Her children are reading above grade level in their schools. And Alma works full-time in the literacy program helping others.

Alma said of learning to read her new language, "My self-confidence has grown because I have learned to speak and read English. My children have learned very good reading and social skills too. It's a very good feeling to be able to read to my children and help them with their homework."

In every country and culture, literacy means freedom, power and opportunity. And literacy programs that are giving adults and children this freedom are making a remarkable difference. With strong leadership from all nations and a commitment to education we can make greater progress. The progress we have already made must inspire and direct our goals in this Decade of Literacy. And we'll need this inspiration because we have a long way to go.

We can start by educating every child by creating sustainable school environments for all children. In developing countries, one in three children does not complete five years of primary education -- and 113 million children worldwide are not in school.

In Mongolia, though, more children are gaining the opportunity to go to school.

There, primary education is now mandatory for children eight years of age and older -- and more than 96 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, while 80 percent are enrolled in secondary school. And progress is being made in Guatemala's el Quich province, where primary school enrollment for girls has increased from 62 percent to 94 percent since 1997. Every village, community and country can learn from these examples and continue this progress.

In this Decade of Literacy, we must close the gender gap and ensure more women and girls are educated. Of the world's nearly 900 million illiterate adults, two thirds are female. In more than 45 countries, only 1 in 4 girls are enrolled in secondary school. Education is vital for everyone, but like the Secretary General said, it is most important for girls. UN studies show that illiterate girls marry as early as eleven years of age and may have up to seven children before the age of 18. Girls who go to school are likely to marry later and to have smaller, healthier families. Educated women understand the importance of health care and nutrition. Mothers with a secondary education have 36 percent lower child mortality rates than mothers with only a primary education.

Today in Peru more than one million girls are going to school since legislation was passed allowing them to go. In Nepal 120 thousand women are becoming literate through a women's empowerment program. And in Benin women are being taught how to manage agricultural cooperatives and run their own businesses.

In this Decade of Literacy we must create learning environments for refugees and for the millions affected by poverty and HIV and AIDS. For them -- education is the key to survival. Education can give the more than 22 million refugees in the world structure and independence in their lives. Strong learning environments are now being built in Afghanistan where the adult illiteracy rate is 70 percent. ProLiteracy Worldwide is training 250 teachers to provide families with literacy and vocational training to rebuild their communities. They're also translating manuals into Farsi and Pashto to fit the local cultural context. UNESCO is establishing community learning centers throughout the country and training literacy teachers.

School systems that have been decimated by AIDS must also be rebuilt. More than ten million children under 15 have been orphaned by AIDS. Many have lost not only parents and loved ones, but their teachers as well. Education is critical for these children. Preventive education will teach them the facts about AIDS; and they can learn the skills they need to support themselves and their families.

In working to accomplish these objectives, the nations of the world should develop strong partnerships, programs and funding resources. All countries must commit to these goals -- both those who face a literacy challenge and those who can help end it. Throughout America's history, education has been the major instrument for progress. We can bring this progress to every nation.

To meet this goal, the United States is investing 333 million dollars in international primary, secondary and college education this year. Of this amount, almost 200 million dollars will be spent on basic education with 100 million dollars for education in Africa. We will also fund skills and information technology training and partnerships that link universities and students in the United States with students worldwide. In addition, our new Millennium Challenge Account will increase our overall development assistance by 50 percent.

Education is the most important long-term investment we can make in our future. Education reflects our love and our belief in freedom. It is freedom itself. And with UNESCO's leadership, freedom can be realized throughout the world with the promise of Education for all. In this Decade of Literacy let every nation work towards education for all so that every person will know freedom, power and opportunity. Thank you.


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