In a bid to extend literacy to the 861 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write and the 113 million children out of school, the United Nations today launched the Literacy Decade.”Literacy remains part of the unfinished business of the 20th century. One of the success stories of the 21st century must be the extension of literacy to include all humankind,” Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said at the ceremony to kick-off the Decade at UN Headquarters in New York.Emphasizing that literacy is a prerequisite for a “health, just and prosperous world,” Ms. Fréchette noted that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women and that is why the first two years of the decade will focus on “Literacy and gender.””When women are educated and empowered the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up,” the Deputy Secretary-General said. “And what is true of families is true of communities – ultimately, indeed, of whole countries.”Joining Ms. Fréchette at the ceremony was the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Koïchiro Matsuura, under whose direction the Decade, which has the theme, “Literacy as Freedom,” will be coordinated.In his remarks, Mr. Matsuura said through literacy, the downtrodden could find their voice, the poor could learn how to learn and the powerless could empower themselves. In that light, the drive for universal literacy was integrally linked to the human rights agenda. Literacy was not a universal panacea for all development problems, but, as a tool of development, it was both versatile and proven.For his part, President Natsagiyn Bagabandi of Mongolia, the driving force behind the initiative, warned that the international community would fail to guarantee equal human rights for all as long as it accepted illiteracy. Literacy was not only the primary requirement for economic well-being, but also a solid base for a lifelong investment in a better and happy life.Notwithstanding the progress and development made in the new information-based century, he added, the virtual elimination of illiteracy called for an effective partnership based on redoubled efforts, resource mobilization and coordination of relevant policies and strategies at the global level.The implementation of the Decade’s plan of action, prepared by UNESCO, will be organized around themes with biennial focuses such as gender, poverty, health, peace and freedom.