Literacy in a Digital World; Making a Case for Community Radios

Literacy in a Digital World; Making a Case for Community Radios


The United Nations designated September 8, International Literacy Day, to raise people’s awareness of and concern for literacy issues in the world.Worldwide the day provides an opportunity to raiseawareness of and concern for literacy problems within their own communities.

The theme for this year’s International Literacy Day is ‘Literacy in a Digital World’ with the overall aim of looking at what kind of literacy skills people need to navigate increasingly digitally-mediated societies, and to explore effective literacy policies and programmes that can leverage the opportunities that the digital world provides.

As knowledge, skills and competencies evolve in the digital world, so also do they evolve in literacy.  According to UNESCO, at least 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children still lack basic literacy skills.  In order to close the literacy skills gap and reduce inequalities, this year’s International Literacy Day will highlight the challenges and opportunities in promoting literacy in the digital world.  A world where, Irina Bokova director general of UNESCO says « everyone should be able to make the most of the benefits of the new digital age, for human rights, for dialogue and exchange, for more sustainable development. »

Community radio is one medium that has the potential of making this happen.  A Community radio is a specific form of radio.  It typically covers a small geographical area with a coverage radius of up to 5km, and is run on a not-for-profit basis.  Community radios can cater for whole communities or for different areas of interest – such as a particular ethnic,  age, religious, group or.  They can also bring added community benefits such as training and community news and discussion.

Community radios are participatory.  They involve communities and are based on community organization, joint thinking and decision-making.  All of these contribute to empowering communities and building democratic societies.

In West Aftica community radios have outpaced television, newspapers and the Internet in reaching hard to reach populations.  It has the advantage of accessing both literate and illiterate audiences, making it more appropriate for populations across Sub-Saharan Africa with low literacy rates as it is more relevant to their local traditions and cultures.

 Community radios can give a voice to the voiceless and most marginalized members of society.  In providing useful and invaluable information in health, education, agriculture and other productive activities it enables women to make informed decisions on matters affecting their lives. It is also a sustainable, cost-effective medium.

Due to their dedication to serving community needs, community radio stations in West Africa play a valuable role in informing and representing public opinion. Current rapid expansions in information and communications technologies (ICTs) present a great potential for community radio stations to better serve audiences and encourage broad participation, in particular through mobile phones.  Women have been using their mobile phones to get information from community radios on price of commodoties and markets in their areas or to give information on their products and where to find them.

Thus the community radio provides a platform for women’s voices to have a greater impact on shaping market economies. It has enabled isolated women to gain access to information which was previously unavailable, thus making them better-informed, empowered members of society able to make decisions on their commodities thus enabling them to take ownership of productive resources.

Since women generally operate in domestic spaces or in spaces near their home the vast majority of rural women normally listen to the radio at home.  However even community radio, has its limitations.  It remains dominated by male voices and interests. A lack of education is a significant obstacle to women’s capacity to play an effective role in the management of community radios.  In most cases it is men who are trained to use the technology, giving them a distinct advantage in running and controlling community radios.

To address this important gap some NGO’s have been training women to play a leading role in the management of community radios.  In Senegal, World Education with the support of USAID and in collaboration with local partner ARLS (Association Rurale pour la Lutte Contra la SIDA), has been managing the Women’s Leadership and Civic Journalism programme in rural Senegal since October 2010.

The programme builds women’s development and leadership skills and engages communities in ways that are changing attitudes about women.  This innovative programme is fostering women’s development by leveraging the power of community radio while also engaging communities. Women reporters produce content for the radio by engaging with community members through listening groups and other forms of community dialogue and advocacy

In addition, the programme addresses practical issues that might impede women’s participation through income-generating activities and a community health insurance program (mutuelles de santés). The community radio has been used to promote women’s leadership by giving them a greater voice and presence in community radio combined with actions in their communities. It has helped to increase support for the inclusion of women in decision -making bodies.

The programme has also drawn upon the popularity of community radio in Senegal and uses it to deliver messages and spread awareness about women’s roles and responsibilities in community development.  It is a good practice that illuminates the actual and potential possibility of community radio in bridging the massive digital divide between rural villages in Africa and the developed world.

By Adelaide Sosseh

Banjul, The Gambia


Photo Zack Taylor / USAID Senegal: Woman reporter NdeyeYacineThiam at work at Gindiku FM radio