At Northwestern University’s recent Global Health Symposium, S.D. Shanti, DDS, MPH, PhD, CPH, spoke about the connection between women’s literacy and public health. Dr. Shanti is an Associate Professor of Public Health at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences in Mesa, AZ. Her areas of expertise include oral health, violence prevention, depression prevention, and the use of information communication technologies for health information dissemination and population level behavior change. Her work has been supported by UNICEF and various foundations in the United States, Switzerland, and the UK. She has extensive field and multi-sector experience, including having served as the Head of Public Health at the World Dental Federation in Geneva. She founded the NGO Woman-to-Woman International, which is based in Switzerland and is a member of Violence Prevention Alliance of the WHO. Her mental health promotion portfolio includes the book “The Time-Starved Woman’s Guide to Emotional Well-Being – tools and strategies for balance.” For a short youTube clip of Dr. Shanti discussing her book, click here.
Claire Vernon: Female literacy is an essential foundational component of improving community health and children’s health, but can you comment on the importance of literacy to a woman herself, her physical and mental well-being?
Dr. S.D. Shanti: Literacy is a basic human right, so when people lack the means to read and write, they experience all kinds of ripple effects including marginalization and the resulting distress that comes from not being a full participant in society.
More women than men are illiterate and advancing women’s literacy is a big step toward achieving equality for women. Literacy is a tool that gives people access to a greater range of jobs, health information and participation in community governance.
When we travel to another country where we don’t speak or read the local language—it’s challenging because our autonomy is diminished. Imagine multiplying that feeling over a lifetime—where people lack essential tools for full participation in society, and never realize even a basic level of autonomy. That fuels emotional distress, hopelessness, and even a sense of fatalism, since people feel they cannot fully control what happens in their lives.
C.V.: If you had a magic wand to completely “fix” one component of women’s illiteracy, what would it be? What is the most important hurdle to overcome in reaching the goal of world-wide women’s literacy?
S.D.S.: According to Dr. John Comings, formerly at the Harvard School of Education, funding is a critical issue. It’s going to cost money to make people literate.
It costs about $65 per woman in a developing country, and if we multiply that by 500 million women that comes to about 32.5 Billion dollars. But we need to look at that figure in terms of the cost of literacy versus the cost of illiteracy. Literacy helps people break out of poverty and promotes people’s ability to help themselves more effectively. That’s why it’s important to not only consider the cost of literacy, but to also consider what is cost to individuals and society when we don’t invest in literacy. Can we afford the cost of illiteracy—in terms of human distress, lost potential, and keeping people mired in poverty?
C.V.: There are multiple levels of health intervention: international versus country-wide versus local community-focused, online learning versus in-person education, broad-reaching versus intimately focused. What level would you say is the most important level to grow in the campaign to eradicate female illiteracy?
S.D.S.: The situation is so complex that no one approach can solve it all. To use an analogy, it’s not about choosing one or two soloists for a performance—it’s more about putting together an orchestra, whereby all the elements harmonize.
Solving the problem of global illiteracy is in a sense both straightforward and obvious—but then to make the change actually happen, one needs to address all of the various parts you mentioned.
Eradicating female illiteracy globally is not easy, but it’s not impossible either. It can be done!