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Supermodel Lily Cole promotes Project Literacy at the House of Commons

A is for AIDS. B is for bloodshed. C is for child brides.

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So begins the alphabet of illiteracy, part of a new global campaign to urge world leaders to take action on illiteracy. The campaign uses each letter of the alphabet to highlight an issue that could be tackled if literacy was improved.

Project Literacy is supported by 40 charities and educational organisations with the target that by 2030, no child will be born into a life of poor literacy.

Supermodel and actor Lily Cole has been appointed global ambassador for the project. Last week, she visited the House of Commons to demonstrate how the inability to read and write is a root cause of the world’s biggest problems.

“Illiterate people are significantly more likely to be affected by almost every major social issue. Which, understood the other way around, allows us to interpret illiteracy as a causal precondition, rather than a symptom, of many of the world’s challenges,” said Cole. “A is for AIDS, because if you can’t read or write, you are five times less likely to understand how to protect yourself from contracting the virus. B is for bloodshed, because the rate of violent crimes is almost double among the illiterate population.”

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Cole shared some shocking statistics: In the U.K., 20 percent of children leave school with poor literacy skills. Across the world, 781 million people over the age of 15 are illiterate, and almost two-thirds of them are women.

In many regions, the problem is getting worse, not better. For example, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the number of illiterate adults in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by 37 percent since 1990.

“Literacy is a key component in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. Without literacy, each of the 17 goals will be limited by the inability of citizens to be sufficiently informed on key issues and less empowered to take action,” said Dan Wagner, Unesco’s chair in learning and literacy at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There is a strong argument that tackling illiteracy and low literacy, as a ‘foundational’ social problem, would pay greater dividends than tackling each issue separately.”

Project Literacy is aiming to secure 1 million signatures on a petition to present to the United Nations in New York on International Literacy Day on Sept. 8. You can sign the petition here.

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