Tackling discrimination against indigenous children through education

Like more than half of indigenous children in Bangladesh, May Yoi Ching didn’t complete school. She received training in sewing from a multilingual education programme and now earns an income from tailoring. (CJ Clarke/Save the Children)

Today, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, it’s important to reflect on the persistent discrimination faced by indigenous children around the world, their over-representation among the world’s poorest children, and the ongoing threats to their language and culture.

Sometimes this discrimination is blatant, such as the staggering number of indigenous children in institutional care in Canada and Australia. But often it’s much subtler. Language of instruction and curriculum in schools often represent non-indigenous children’s experiences, denying indigenous children the opportunity to be taught in their own language and to learn from the experiences of their local communities and cultural heritage. At the same time, these gaps in school instruction maintain narratives of national identity that are narrowly defined and, over time, serve to undermine cultural diversity.

In Peru, for example, the latest census found many Quechuan parents refused to teach their children their mother tongue out of fear that their children would face discrimination. And education disparities in countries where indigenous language instruction is not available can be immense, such as Cameroon, where some indigenous groups have a 30% primary school completion rate compared to the national average of 70%.

Indigenous communities also tend to live in rural and marginalised areas within countries, where public services are underfunded or unavailable and where land holdings are being encroached upon, indirectly discriminating against indigenous communities from participating in national development progress.

But some countries have made significant strides in increasing access to education for indigenous children by providing local language instruction, adapting school curricula to local contexts, and devolving decision-making to local communities. Save the Children, in collaboration with the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network, recently undertook an analysis of anti-discrimination policies in education, which found that some countries, such as Cambodia and Ethiopia, have begun to close the gap in access to education between indigenous children and their peers.

In 2006, the Cambodian government introduced bilingual education for indigenous children in five provinces. While further work is needed to adapt the school curriculum and to incorporate other indigenous languages, gaps in the number of out-of-school children in predominantly indigenous regions have been closing. In 2000, 71% of children in Rotanak Kiri and 50% of children in Mondulkiri – both provinces with high populations of indigenous children – were out of school, compared with the national average of 23%. In 2014 the number of out-of-school children in these regions reduced to 28%, catching up with the national average of 10% in 2014.

In 2005, the Ethiopian government introduced alternative basic education support programmes in pastoralist regions of Afar and Somali. These include mobile schools, para-boarding schooling, and hostels, as well as flexible learning environments and mother tongue language instruction. In both regions, the number of out-of-school children has fallen dramatically – from 84% in Afar and 85% in Somali in 2005 to 46% and 39% respectively.

Incorporating indigenous language and teaching into school curricula not only serves to break down barriers in access to education for children in indigenous communities, but also promotes inclusion and respect for diversity.

At a time when divisiveness and exclusion appear to be making gains around the world, initiatives that promote the inclusion and respect of indigenous communities are vital, and should be adapted in other contexts to ensure that all children have their rights to education and culture fulfilled free from discrimination.



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