Laura Bush in Paris for Literacy Meeting

The Associated Press
Monday, January 15, 2007; 8:21 PM

PARIS -- First lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and librarian, heard educators from Afghanistan to Madagascar describe their fight with illiteracy during a United Nations round table in Paris on Monday.

Participants in a UNESCO conference here on teaching reading outside of traditional school settings briefed Mrs. Bush on programs in Madagascar, Afghanistan, Egypt and Burkina Faso.

"Of the 781 million adults who cannot read a simple book, more than two-thirds of them are women," said Mrs. Bush, honorary ambassador for the United Nations' Decade of Literacy.

"Ending illiteracy is a challenge for every country," she said. "Yet investing in literacy and education helps governments meet their other fundamental requirements _ it improves opportunities for children and families, it strengthens economies and it helps keep their citizens in good health."

As first lady, Mrs. Bush has championed literacy programs. In September, she hosted a White House conference on global literacy in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, co-hosted Monday's meeting with Mrs. Bush. He said about one-fifth of adults worldwide are illiterate, while 77 million children do not go to school. One big problem is a shortage of teachers.

"An estimated 18 million more teachers must be trained worldwide by 2015 if we are to achieve universal primary education," he said.

Mrs. Bush, at the start of a three-day stay in Paris, also toured the city's new Quai Branly museum Monday, which houses art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

On Tuesday, she will visit the graves of American soldiers killed during the two World Wars in a cemetery in the Paris suburb of Suresnes. She is also scheduled to tour the chateau where the Marquis de Lafayette _ the French hero of the American Revolution _ lived.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Bush will attend a conference hosted by France's first lady, Bernadette Chirac, on missing and exploited children.

In 2003, Mrs. Bush visited Paris to usher the United States back into UNESCO after a 19-year absence. The United States had pulled out of UNESCO in 1984, accusing the agency of anti-American bias and corruption.

© 2007 The Associated Press