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Education for All: Success of Eritrea’s Fight against Illiteracy

This powerful quote is translated in Eritrea’s vision of “Education for All” requires commitment, strong policies and engagement of communities to make it a reality. It was a vision inherited from the time of the armed struggle and continues today with the fight against illiteracy by including adult and non-formal education in the curriculum. On the occasion of the International Literacy Day observed on September 8th, let’s assess the case of Eritrea.

As proclaimed in the 1994 National Charter, “Education is the foundation of development in Eritrea. To provide equal educational opportunity means to provide equal opportunity for development. We must widely expand education so that our people can be free from ignorance, acquire knowledge and skills through various means, and enhance their productive capacity to build their country. Education is a fundamental right to which every Eritrean is entitled” (pp.23- 24).

With its vision and guiding principles inscribed in its National Charter, Eritrea quickly drafted policies on education including the importance in prioritizing literacy and access to education to all without any discrimination of religion, ethnicity or region. With more than 80% of the population being illiterate, the Government of Eritrea promoted adult education to enable people to read, write and have numeracy skills and enhance their contribution to the micro and macro development of the country.

Mr. Tkabo Aymut, Head of the Division of Curriculum Planning and Development of Adult Education at the Ministry of Education, explained the benefits of adult education at micro and macro levels. At micro-level, citizens are able to be active participants within their community as well as understanding their environment in which an educated household would benefit the society as a whole. At macro-level, citizens at the working age group become active participants in human capital, health, nutrition and development of institutions.

Implementing the vision of “Education for All” requires the creation of non-formal and adult learning opportunities nationwide in addition to formal education. Mr. Weldu Berhe, Head of Monitoring at the Department of Adult Education and Media at the Ministry of Education, said that the Government put key principles on this matter under the National Policy on Adult Education (NPAE) drafted in 2005. The principles promote the use of mother tongue as the medium of instruction, target the 15-45 age group of the population, give priority to the disadvantaged groups, maximize the utilization of resources of formal school to promote adult education and training, and support the provision of learning materials free of charges. Those guidelines were also promoted in the Eritrea National Education Policy Draft of 2003 stipulating Eritrea’s commitment to lifelong learning and education as a fundamental human right.

The policy is delivering positive results reducing illiteracy rate in Eritrea to less than 20% compared to the average 50% of illiterate on the African continent according to the Ministry of Education’s figures of 2016. This important progress was made possible through a focus program which began in 2000. The focus program is a community-based approach in which “the person who learns should one day be able to teach others”, Mr. Weldu said. Literacy course is the initial aim. However, life skills and vocational training and even opportunities to further studies are also available nationwide. Many have the motivation to pursue vocational training while some aim at getting higher education by attending evening classes. Former students in literacy centres became teachers themselves within their communities. In Afabet subzone, for instance, most of the teachers in primary schools are products of those literacy centres who took the opportunity to continue their studies, said Mr. Tkabo.

From 2000 to 2016, adult education and non-formal education in all six regions allowed about one million citizens to enrol and whom 800,000 of them completed their courses (MoE, 2016). This achievement was recognized as one of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals and is in good path to be achieve under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The positive impact of the community approach made citizens active participants and responsible in ringing the alarm if any signs of illiteracy were identified within their surroundings. Mr. Weldu explained the importance of drawing own national policy and project by giving the example of external stakeholder such as the World Food Program (WFP), which had a “work for food” project pushing people to work in exchange for food. “A few years back, this program had a negative impact on adult education… many were dropping out as they were tempted by the fact that food was provided”, Mr. Weldu said. This example was quickly taken care of and allowed the Ministry of Education to revitalize its plan to fight illiteracy afterwards.

The literacy program for adults also allowed policy makers to witness that many women come with their children aged 6-8 to learn how to read and write by their side. The project named, “Nearyom”, initiated in 2002, was launched to informally educate the children as well as their mothers at a faster speed to give them a chance to catch up with their counterparts in formal education. This project was popular in rural areas and especially in the Gash Barka region with about 30,000 beneficiaries. Other literacy and lifelong education programs showcased in the 2016/2017 school year about 40,000 nationwide 32,000 of whom were women. Gash Barka region had 17,000 participants, Northern Red Sea 10,000, and Anseba 5,000. (MoE, 2016). The Central region is close to zero of illiteracy rate whereas additional focus is needed in the Southern Red Sea and Gash Barka regions.

The positive impact of adult learning and non-formal education is the result of massive efforts in fighting against cultural barriers especially against women and girls. Moreover, the adult population tend to have an attitude that suggests “why would I learn, my kids are learning, for me it’s too late”. Such an attitude was common and required strong campaigning by civil society groups such as the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) and local governments and community leaders. “Making adults understand that they are members of the workforce and that we need them to learn as we can’t wait for their children for 20 years; in other words, making them learn is a short-cut”, said Mr. Tkabo. That is why adult education primarily focuses on those aged 15 to 45 and there has been high participation among the 25 to 45 years of age accounting for over 47% of all participants during the period of 2011 to 2015 (MOE, 2016).

Achieving development by providing education for all is a key pillar for development. Enhancing community participation and creating a sense of ownership among citizens have shown results in adult education. Those results need to be highlighted and require strong monitoring and continued efforts to bring the rate of illiteracy of illiteracy to zero and be an example for the African continent by gradually lowering the number of illiterate people to 10% within the next 5 to 10 years.

In view of this, the Ministry Education has embarked on future projects by creating learning centres and by providing more textbooks in all languages to all parts of the country and by collaborating with civil societies such as the NUEW in having literacy course within their training centres in all regions. Educating the people is an ongoing process and lifelong learning and training continue to be part of Eritrea’s macro-policy towards sustainable development and growth.

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