YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – When Pope Francis visited Madagascar in September, he told one of the poorest countries in the world that “poverty is not inevitable.”

He called on the leaders of the country to “enact models of development that support the fight against poverty and social exclusion, on the basis of trust, education, hard work and commitment.”

Yet one of the biggest obstacles on the island nation – located off the east coat of Africa – is a sky-high illiteracy rate.

“One in three adults in Madagascar cannot read, write, or calculate simple sums,” said Tanja Englberger, the head of programs in Madagascar for the Catholic Relief Services, the international development arm of the U.S. bishops.

“Women in particular are more likely to be illiterate. When people are unable to read or write, it puts them at a disadvantage. They are often unaware of important health information, find it difficult to calculate money for business transactions, and do not have the confidence to participate in many community activities, including voting,” she told Crux.

Citing the latest government statistics, Englberger said only 52 percent of girls in Madagascar complete elementary education; the figure for boys is better, but still only 60 percent.

“The difference is exacerbated for literacy rates among adults particularly in rural areas,” the added.

Catholic Relief Services has published the stories of market women who have had to be cheated because of their illiteracy.

In the case of Voajoroe, she would worry about carrying out financial exchanges with customers in a busy market in Ampasimbe, in southern Madagascar.  She couldn’t read, write, or do simple math, so she was often taken advantage of by people.

Catholic Relief Services has worked with its partners to introduce an adult literacy program to teach mostly women how to read, write and do math.

“We are working with a local organization which trains people who live in villages to teach adults in their villages how to read and do basic math. The training facilities and materials are extremely basic but work; and the principle is to teach useful concepts like measuring a field, calculating change, and taking notes,” Englberger told Crux.

She said they are making use of “lead mothers” to pass on important information, but these women still need to be brought up to speed on basic literacy.

“Currently, four out of ten lead mothers – the people who promote key project messages within our projects, and to whom important tasks are entrusted – are illiterate,” she said.

Englberger said these “lead mothers” have a strong need for reading, writing, speaking, basic math and problem solving.

She added the illiteracy problem in the country varies greatly by region.

“For example, in the region where the capital is located, 82 percent of children finish elementary school, whereas in the Androy region where we are conducting adult literacy classes, only 27 percent finish,” she told Crux.

But Englberger said the literacy program is helping the situation.

“Among the benefits, the program has increased equitable joint decision-making because couples are able to calculate the price of household meals and it has enabled participants to take on leadership responsibilities within community associations such as community health volunteers,” she said.

Having seen the benefits of education, Voajoroe said she knows the future of her children depends on their capacity to read and write.

“It was as if someone opened a door inside my head, and then I realized I needed to send my children to school. When the teachers saw me learning in this class, they told me they can take care of my children. And now they are all in school,” she said.

The literacy program is helping to fill a vacuum left by the disruption of a government adult literacy program that was interrupted due to political crisis.

A national government strategy to fight illiteracy was drafted in 2008, but was never implemented.

A military coup in 2009 plunged the country into instability, and money that had been earmarked for education was instead used to boost military spending.

Figures from the country’s education ministry indicate that only 0.46 percent of its budget is dedicated to adult literacy programs.

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