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View literacy rates around the world

For many people around the world, the ability to read is an essential tool necessary for everyday life. Yet despite its importance, an estimated 773 million people around the world lack access to this basic, often life-saving skill. When it comes to literacy rates, which countries are leading and which are lagging behind?

This graph of Eleanor Nazander visualizes literacy rates in more than 150+ countries and provides a breakdown of male versus female literacy rates in each country, using UNESCO data.

Countries with the highest literacy rates

From 1960 to 2015, global literacy rose from 42% to 86%, or approximately 4% increase every five years.

While overall literacy rates have increased, some countries have experienced greater growth than others. Of the countries included in the dataset, here is an overview of the countries with the highest literacy rates, according to the latest figures available:

The country Female literacy rate Male literacy rate
🇺🇦Ukraine 100.0% 100.0%
🇺🇿 Uzbekistan 100.0% 100.0%
🇪🇪 Estonia 99.9% 99.9%
🇱🇻 Latvia 99.9% 99.9%
🇸🇲 San Marino 99.9% 99.9%
🇨🇺Cuba 99.8% 99.7%
🇱🇹 Lithuania 99.8% 99.8%
🇷🇺 Russia 99.7% 99.7%
🇦🇲 Armenia 99.7% 99.8%
🇧🇾 Belarus 99.7% 99.8%
🇰🇿 Kazakhstan 99.7% 99.8%
🇹🇯 Tajikistan 99.7% 99.8%
🇦🇿 Azerbaijan 99.7% 99.9%
🇧🇧 Barbados 99.6% 99.6%
🇸🇮 Slovenia 99.6% 99.7%
🇹🇲 Turkmenistan 99.6% 99.8%
🇹🇴 Tonga 99.5% 99.4%
🇵🇼 Palau 99.5% 99.5%
🇬🇪 Georgia 99.5% 99.7%
🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan 99.5% 99.7%

All of the countries on this list have national literacy rates higher than 99%with Ukraine and Uzbekistan with 100%.

One country on this list worth discussing is Cuba. The country’s high literacy rate of 99.8% is arguably the result of a campaign launched by dictator Fidel Castro in 1961, which aimed to abolish illiteracy in the country. In less than a year, more than 700,000 Cubans have acquired basic literary skills.

While Castro’s government imposed rigid censorship and is referred to by critics as an oppressive regime, this literacy campaign also likely influenced surrounding Latin American countries, leading to improved literacy rates in the region.

Countries with lowest literacy rates

At the other end of the spectrum, here’s a look at the countries on the list with the lowest literacy rates. As the data show, a staggering amount of the world’s illiterate population is found in sub-Saharan Africa:

The country Female literacy rate Male literacy rate
🇹🇩 Chad 14.0% 38.9%
🇳🇪 Nigeria 22.6% 39.1%
🇸🇸 South Sudan 28.9% 40.3%
🇬🇳 Guinea 22.0% 43.6%
🇲🇱 Mali 25.7% 46.2%
🇧🇫 Burkina Faso 32.7% 50.1%
🇨🇫 Central African Republic 25.8% 50.7%
🇸🇱 Sierra Leone 34.9% 51.6%
🇨🇮 Ivory Coast 40.5% 53.7%
🇧🇯 Benin 31.1% 54.0%
🇦🇫 Afghanistan 29.8% 55.5%
🇮🇶 Iraq 44.0% 56.2%
🇪🇹 Ethiopia 44.4% 59.2%
🇬🇲 Gambia 41.6% 61.8%
🇬🇼 Guinea-Bissau 30.8% 62.2%
🇱🇷 Liberia 34.1% 62.7%
🇲🇷 Mauritania 43.4% 63.7%
🇰🇲 Comoros 53.0% 64.6%
🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea 57.9% 65.3%
🇭🇹 Haiti 58.3% 65.3%

The country with the lowest literacy rate covered by this data is Chad, at only 14.0% for female literacy and 38.9% for male literacy. This is due to a number of factors, including poor access to education. In 2019, more than 700,000 children were out of school, of which almost 500,000 were girls.

However, it should be noted that Chad’s young population is much more literate than its older population – over 30% of young people (aged 15-24) are literate, compared to barely 7% senior citizens (65+) which shows how education has improved over the years, although there is still a long way to go.

Gender Disparities in Global Literacy

A broad target in the official list of UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 is to close the gender gap in education. And as the data shows, some regions are already achieving this goal, most countries in Central Asia, Europe, North America, East and Southeast Asia and Latin America having already achieved near gender parity in literacy.

That said, countries in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia and South Asia still show significant gender disparities. Here is an overview of the countries with the widest gender gaps in literacy:

The country Male literacy Female literacy Gender gap (pp)
🇬🇼 Guinea-Bissau 62.2% 30.8% 31.4%
🇱🇷 Liberia 62.7% 34.1% 28.6%
🇦🇴 Angola 80.0% 53.4% 26.6%
🇹🇬 Togo 77.3% 51.2% 26.1%
🇸🇳 Senegal 66.3% 40.4% 25.9%
🇦🇫Afghanistan 55.5% 29.8% 25.7%
🇨🇫 Central African Republic 50.7% 25.8% 24.9%
🇹🇩 Chad 38.9% 14.0% 24.9%
🇵🇰 Pakistan 71.1% 46.5% 24.6%
🇧🇯 Benin 54.0% 31.1% 22.9%

Guinea-Bissau in West Africa has the largest gender literacy gap, with a literacy rate for men that is 31.4 percentage points higher than women. One of the possible reasons for this discrepancy is the high number of child marriages in the country – around 37% of women are married before the age of 18.

While various organizations have created programs to help girls in Guinea-Bissau stay in school, a gap of this size will likely take a lot of time and effort to close.

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