International Literacy Day

WHAT IF every human could read and write?

The COST of illiteracy in the world today.


A young, sixteen-year-old girl went into labour with her first child in a hut in her highland village. She spent four days in excruciating pain before her baby died inside her. Traumatic childbirth left young Mamitu incontinent, uncontrollably leaking urine and faeces. She was left with few options. A life of social ostracism, homelessness, and prostitution was the unfortunate result of social stigma.

Despite all odds, her fate was different. She was treated by a skilled surgeon inside Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. A young woman was given a second chance. She needed ten surgeries performed by legendary Australian doctor Catherine Hamlin – a woman who would become her mentor, surrogate mother and lifelong friend.

Dr Catherine Hamlin noticed something special in Mamitu. She was kind, dedicated and had a razor-sharp mind. She could empathise better than anyone with the frightening ordeal her patients were facing. First, Mamitu was mopping the floors and making patients beds in a hospital. Later, the Hamlins allowed Mamitu to watch during surgery, then encouraged her to assist by sponging blood, cutting wires and sewing wounds. Later, she would rest her hands on theirs, memorising every step as they guided her through intricate incisions.

Mamitu, once a patient and later in life a prominent surgeon, learned to operate on fistulas by placing her hands over the great surgeon’s hand. She was tracing Dr Hamlin’s intricate incisions as she worked to save other women. This is the only way Mamitu could learn because she is illiterate. As a child and young adult, she had no access to any form of formal education.

The Hamlins opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and helped more than 60,000 women since, free of charge. Mamitu has helped and operated many of them. Today she is part of a unique group affectionately known as ‘barefoot surgeons’, non-medically qualified practitioners changing the face of medicine in developing countries without formal training. Surgeons like Mamitu typically specialise in one area, which they have painstakingly learned through observation and natural skill. The international medical community increasingly recognises their efforts as a vital component of healthcare provision in some of the most vulnerable and poverty-stricken places on earth.

In 1989, Mamitu was awarded the Gold Medal for surgery from London’s Royal College of Surgeons. She was among the BBC’s ‘100 Women’ list in 2018, in the illustrious company of world leaders, industry trailblazers and everyday heroes.[1]

Mamitu Gashe is an extraordinary hero who developed her skills and found her calling despite being denied a formal education. As a society, we can only admire people like Mamitu.

Maybe instead of just admiring people like Mamitu, we should ask ourselves some hard questions? Like,

  • WHAT DO WE LOSE? What do we lose as a society because people like Mamitu, who possess wisdom, skills and potential, are denied basic knowledge, like reading and writing?
  • WHAT IF EVERY HUMAN BEING COULD READ AND WRITE? What if people like Mamitu could attend schools from an early age? What kind of impact, social innovation, and added value, even profit, would people like Mamitu create?

According to statistics, millions of adults can’t read or write. Despite the steady rise in literacy rates over the past 50 years, there are still 773 million illiterate adults worldwide, most of whom are women. These numbers are a stark reminder of the work ahead to meet the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure that all youth and adults achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.[2]

In the report[3], published in advance of the third World Literacy Summit in 2018, over €933 billion -had been estimated as the cost of illiteracy to the global economy. The social cost can be calculated in terms of welfare payments or the increased burden on healthcare systems, but ultimately the real opportunity and human cost will never be known. Without literacy, people cannot create individual financial wealth, encourage entrepreneurship amongst their communities, nor build healthy and stable families. The lost opportunities of each human contribution to society’s political, cultural, or economic areas are countless.

Illiteracy is a loss for humanity, societies and individuals. Girls like Mamitu, without access to formal education, marry too early. Several studies suggest a causal relationship – more education for girls can result in fewer teenage pregnancies, fewer complications at childbirth, and a higher survival rate of newborns.[4] If all women complete secondary education, there would be:[5]

  • 49% fewer child deaths
  • 64% fewer early marriages
  • 59% fewer young pregnancies
  • And they would earn up to 45% more than a woman with no education.


In February 2019[6] ADRA global network launched a new global advocacy campaign, “Every Child. Everywhere. In School.” The campaign is an urgent call to leaders around the world that all children, regardless of race, age, nationality, gender, religion or origin, have a right to earn and complete an education, and that being in school is a recognition of the value and potential of each child. Through the petition, ADRA calls upon world leaders to take action for children to receive a quality education and live free from exploitation and the shackles of intergenerational poverty. Already, 1,3 million individuals around the world have pledged support for access to education.[7]

Every woman cured at the Fistula Hospital leaves with a new dress to take back to her village, a symbol of rebirth and celebration of the new chapter they are about to begin. They are reborn because, without surgery, their lives would be over. They are reborn because of highly educated medical staff and illiterate “barefoot” surgeons. Today, on World Literacy Day, think about people like Mamitu. Tell her story. But most of all, get engaged and speak up for access to education for every child, everywhere.


Brussels, 8th September 2021.

By: ADRA Europe      

  What can you do?[8] Establishing parent and adult literacy school programsSupport children “at-risk” of illiteracyIncrease Availability of Resources & FinancesInclude Women and Girls in LiteracyLaunch a Global Campaign for Literacy AwarenessWork Across Country BordersSign the petition @  

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[8] Recommendations from A WHITE PAPER BY THE WORLD LITERACY FOUNDATION. More about each recommendations here: