Girls and women are still in the minority in education in many countries and the proportion of girls and women tends to decrease progressively as the level of education rises. Several economic, social and cultural factors impede, in different contexts, the access of girls and women to, and their participation in, education. The number of illiterate women is actually increasing, due not only to the rise in population but also to the fact that schoolchildren who have not been able to consolidate their knowledge sufficiently, relapse into illiteracy. Efforts to improve community sanitation, economic production, child welfare, family planning, and housing, to name a few, are badly impeded by the cost and logistical difficulties of educating women who are illiterate about development possibilities. Further, female illiteracy confirms society's worst notions about the inutility of women in the community.
Because of their lack of education, women can be the most insidious opponents of precisely those programmes intended to improve their lives and those of their children. They are often not permitted to attend community training sessions and meetings, where their ignorance can embarrass community members in front of government officials or other agents of change. Their questions, left unanswered, turn into passive resistance to new practices.
The proportion of women illiterates is steadily growing. In 1960, 58% of illiterates were women; by 1970 this percentage had risen to 60%. In those ten years the number of illiterate men rose by 8 million and that of illiterate women by 40 million. World statistics for 1980 indicate that the male/female adult illiteracy rate was 23/34 in the world, 50/71 in Africa, 30/45 in Asia, 18/23 in South America, 9/11 in Oceania, 33/38 in Europe and 1/1 in North America. It is projected that the number of illiterate women will reach an estimated 539 million by 1990.
Two out of three of the world's illiterates are women. In many parts of the world women from the working and peasant classes are thought to have no business, indeed no right, to associate with books. Besides they have neither time to study nor money to buy books. The book world, then, becomes the special realm for the elite classes.