Solid Literacy Data Arrives

15 Apr 2012

Anyone interested in the facts about education and literacy will be excited to know that the full report of the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey 2010-11 has recently been released.  Because of the many disruptions in Zimbabwean life since the last study in 2005-06, it has been difficult to obtain accurate current data.

This major survey now gives highly reliable data, based on a nationally representative sample of 40,000 individuals from 406 wards around the country, both urban and rural. The study was conducted by ZIMSTATT from September 2010 to March 2011, with international funding.

Educational level

Although the DHS report is focused on health issues, questions were also asked about education because “the educational level of household members is among the most important characteristics of the household because it is associated with many factors that have a significant impact on health-seeking behaviour.”

Since the 2005 survey, primary school attendance is down 4%, but secondary school attendance is up 3%. However, school attendance still is less at the higher levels. About 90% of children aged 6-12 are attending primary school, but only about 60-65% of urban children and less than 50% of rural children attend secondary school. Regionally, Bulawayo has the highest attendance rates and Mashonaland North the lowest.  About 7% of Zimbabweans have attended some post-secondary education.

A generation ago, more males than females attended school, but that ratio has now been reversed at the lower levels. For the last 25 years, girls have been more likely to begin primary school, complete primary school and begin secondary school. Only around Form 2 do boys become a majority in the classroom, and they are twice as likely to finish secondary school.


The survey assumed that those who had attended secondary school are literate and for those who had not attended school, the interviewer asked the respondent to read from a card (recording whether they could read a whole sentence or even part of it). They were also asked “Do you read a newspaper or magazine at least once a week, less than once a week or not at all?”

The survey reports “literacy rates in Zimbabwe are very high; overall, 94 percent of women and 96 percent of men are literate.”  But it should be noted that the survey reports as literate the minimal threshold of those who can read even part of a sentence but not a whole sentence.  Although these individuals know their letters, they would probably not be comfortable reading a page of a newspaper or book.  If this group (which composes 7% of the population) is excluded, the survey’s data shows that only 88% of Zimbabweans aged 15-54 “can read a whole sentence.” If we were to add in the small population over 55, which is generally less literate, we would conclude that 87% of the Zimbabwean population over 15 can read a whole sentence.

The report also breaks down the literacy rate by various groups: “The rate is lower among women age 45-49 (79 percent) than among both women in younger age cohorts (90 percent or higher) and men in the same age cohort (94 percent).  Bulawayo and Harare have the highest literacy rates for both women (99 percent and 98 percent, respectively) and men (99 percent each). Mashonaland Central has the lowest literacy rate for women (86 percent), while Matabeleland North has the lowest rate for men (84 percent). As with educational attainment, literacy is directly associated with wealth status.”

One indication of the damage done by school stoppages and dropouts in the last 6 years is the 2-4% lower literacy rate among males aged 15-19 than among 20-24 year olds.

Reading habits

Perhaps most interesting are the answers to the question about reading habits from those aged 15-49. Nationwide, 31% of men and 16% of women said they read a newspaper or magazine at least once a week. The difference was substantial between those in urban areas (almost double the national average) and those in rural areas (half the national average). For example, about 60% of Harare and Bulawayo men indicated a weekly reading of print media, but only 11% of those in Masvingo Province.  The urban/rural divide was also matched in television watching, which indicates that at present television and reading are not in competition but rather equally enjoyed by those who have access to them (primarily in the cities).

The good news is that the reading average was actually one percent higher for those in their 20s. But, just as with education, there is a weak spot among men aged 15-19; they not only read less but also watched less television or listed to the radio.

Additional information about the ZDHS may be obtained from the Zimbabwe National Statistics in Harare, Zimbabwe (Telephone: (263-4) 793-971/2 E-mail: [email protected]) or MeasureDHS (with pdf).