Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011
People - Education
Staying in school and learning to read
Data sources: UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Asia and the Pacific is home to the largest number of illiterate adults worldwide and educational improvements have hardly been able to keep up with population growth across the region – only marginal progress in literacy has occurred in the last decade, with 518 million illiterate adults in 2008 down from the 527 million of 10 years ago. Female illiterate adults far outnumber males, in the period 2005 to 2009, women accounted for 65% of illiterate adults in the region.

Adult literacy

Asia and the Pacific accounts for 518 million of the 793 million illiterate adults worldwide (slightly over the Asia-Pacific share of the population at 61%). Of those, about 416 million live in South and South-West Asia. Data indicate that 14% of illiterate adults in Asia and the Pacific are from the least developed countries while those countries represent less than 7% of the total Asia-Pacific population.

Most of the region’s illiterate adults are concentrated in a few countries with large populations. Data for the period between 2005 and 2009 reveal that five Asian countries had more than 10 million illiterate adults: India (283 million), China (65 million), Pakistan (50 million), Bangladesh (49 million) and Indonesia (13 million) – accounting for 89% of all illiterate adults in Asia and the Pacific, and 58% of the world figure. In the past two decades, China reduced its number of illiterate adults by 117 million and Indonesia by 8 million.

Although the number of illiterate adults has been relatively constant, worldwide and in Asia and the Pacific, in the last 10 years, the percentage of adults who can read (the adult literacy rate) has increased. The Asia-Pacific adult literacy rate has increased by 11 percentage points over the past 20 years. The biggest improvements in literacy rates in Asia and the Pacific occurred in South and South-West Asia and East and North- East Asia, with a 15 and 14 percentage point increase, respectively. Despite the improvement, South and South-West Asia’s literacy rate of 64% is far below the world average of 84%. Furthermore, progress in improving literacy rates in countries in South and South-West Asia has not kept pace with population growth, so the number of illiterate people continues to rise – between the two periods of 1985-1994 and 2005-2009, the adult literacy increased from 49% to 64% while the number of illiterate people increased by 11 million.

Figure I.38 - Number of illiterate adults, most populous Asian countries, 1985-1994 and 2005- 2009 averages

Figure I.38 - Number of illiterate adults, most populous Asian countries, 1985-1994 and 2005- 2009 averages

At the current pace of progress, the Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG-2) commitment of countries to halve their illiteracy rate by 2015 from the 2000 levels may not be met. Among Asian countries with large illiterate populations, China is on track to achieve the goal, while Bangladesh and India are still far from the target.

In many countries, the remaining population subgroups without literacy are marginalized and harder to reach and thus require special attention. Literacy for indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups requires diverse approaches including attention to mother-tongue-first literacy. Increasing migration in the region also means that illiteracy is on the move, bringing new challenges.

Factors of economic or social marginalization such as income, parental education, ethnicity, language and disability, often exacerbate disparities in literacy rates. The literacy rate for the richest Bangladeshi households is 76%, compared with 28% for the poorest; in Viet Nam, the literacy rate is 94% among the majority Kinh population, but only 72% among ethnic minorities; and in Pakistan, urban literacy rates are twice as high as the rural average.1 Within urban areas, illiteracy tends to be concentrated in informal settlements characterized by high levels of poverty. National surveys often fail to include the people living in informal settlements where literacy levels tend to be relatively low, resulting in underestimation of the numbers of illiterate adults.1

Gender differentials

In the period 2005 to 2009, women accounted for 65% of illiterate adults in the region, a nearly similar proportion as twenty years ago (1985-1994) when 64% of the illiterate population was female.

Female adult literacy rates for the 2005-2009 period remained below the average of male literacy in the same period. In Nepal, in 2008, 55% of adult women were illiterate, whereas 29% of men were illiterate; women were about twice as likely as men to be illiterate in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (2005) and Pakistan (2008).2 Out of the 38 countries in the region with literacy data for the 2005-2009 period, 20 are still striving to meet gender parity while 18 of them have already achieved it.

Failure to address gender disparities in literacy, particularly for women who are socially and economically disadvantaged, is hindering the progress of overall adult literacy improvement.


While progress is evident in bringing children into school in Asia and the Pacific, particularly at primary level, the key issue is ensuring that they complete the full primary cycle and successfully move to the next education level. Getting children into school and ensuring that they complete a full primary education will contribute to literacy improvement in the long term.

Figure I.39 – Gender parity index for adult literacy rates, Asia and the Pacific, 1990, 2000 and 2009

Figure I.39 – Gender parity index for adult literacy rates, Asia and the Pacific, 1990, 2000 and 2009

The survival rate to the last grade of primary education is below 85% in one third of Asian and Pacific countries where data are available for the 2007-2009 period. Among them, the survival rate to the last grade is lowest in Cambodia where only 55% of pupils reach the last grade, followed by Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh where two in three pupils or less reach the last grade. In Indonesia, Sri Lanka (2005) and Pakistan survival rates dropped between 2004 and 2008.

Enrolment, retention and completion of the primary education cycle is crucial to achieving universal primary education, an international commitment of countries under the second Millennium Development Goal (MDG-2) and the Education for All (EFA) initiative. While many countries in the region have increased their primary net enrolment rates, there is mixed success in keeping children in school. Ensuring universal literacy over the long term requires ensuring that all children who leave school have acquired at least basic literacy and numeracy skills and can access opportunities to maintain and strengthen those skills over time.

1 UNESCO, Reaching the marginalized, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010 (UNESCO and Oxford University Press, Paris, 2010), p. 96.

2 UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Global Education Digest 2010: Comparing Education Statistics Across the World, UIS/SD/10-08 (Montreal, 2010). Data tables available from

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Table I.30 Primary school completion rates and literacy rates
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Table I.31 Illiterate population
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