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Indigenous peoples and education

Indigenous peoples and formal school education: constraints and concerns 

The education gap between indigenous peoples and mainstream populations remains critical: rates of enrollment retention, completion of and performance at primary school level are significantly lower and gender disparities are often pronounced. Indigenous educational deficits range from generalized exclusion to limited access to the upper levels of primary and secondary education, with admittance to higher education still being the exception.

Indigenous peoples’ acute educational marginalization is closely connected to a number of interlinking factors, such as poverty (child labour), ethnicity (social stigma and institutionalized discrimination), language barriers, gender-based discrimination, traditional practices (including early marriage), and a lack of access to basic services due to their geographical isolation. 

The major shortcoming is that formal school systems rarely reflect the realities of indigenous livelihoods or traditional educational systems

• Most national curricula tend to ignore indigenous peoples’ history, cultures and languages; textbooks and other educational materials reflect the values, norms and traditions of mainstream society. 

• Formal school education is provided in the national language, and the languages of indigenous peoples - as well as their traditional knowledge and skills - are ignored or devalued.

• School terms and daily schedules do not take into consideration indigenous peoples’ livelihood, for example, pastoralism and nomadism.

• The methods for imparting instruction and class discipline clash with those commonly practised in the students’ home or community (where, for example, they refrain from using corporal punishment or embarrassing children in front of others).

• Most non-indigenous teachers are not prepared to teach in indigenous communities (lack of cultural training and understanding of indigenous peoples’ values and ways of life).

• Elders and community members are not involved in setting the direction or educational goals of the school.

The following factors also negatively affect indigenous peoples’ access to formal education:

• Lack of or deficient school infrastructure in the areas where they live; 

• Lack of mobile schools and/or culturally-adequate boarding facilities for nomadic and semi-nomadic indigenous children; 

• Financial burden imposed by tuition fees and the indirect costs of education (materials, uniforms, school meals, transport); 

• Lack of qualified bilingual teachers and learning materials written in the learners’ mother-tongue; 

• Poor learning conditions (shortage of desks and chairs, poorly lit and ventilated classrooms) and unsafe school environments (discrimination, physical abuse, gender violence). 

• Militarisation in indigenous territories disturbing the daily cycle and the instilling fear affecting children’s education including the use of community schools as military detachments. 

These shortcomings have negative impacts and many indigenous peoples worldwide share traumatic school experiences. To name but a few: being separated from their families and living far away in unfriendly and unsafe boarding schools; being socially stigmatized and abused by fellow pupils; learning foreign systems of knowledge in a language other than their own; and being taught by teachers from cultures that are different from, and dominant to, their own. 

Many indigenous peoples have come to see formal school education as a way of assimilating them into mainstream society and eradicating their cultures, languages and ways of life. This often causes cultural and generational conflicts between youths and elders, and threatens the social cohesion in indigenous communities. Many indigenous youths also experience the loss of an important part of their identity in their dealings with mainstream values and norms, while not fully becoming a part of the dominant national society. Research shows that the loss of cultural identity and school maladjustment are important factors in the high rates of substance abuse and suicide among indigenous youths.

The indigenous path towards a culturally-appropriate and relevant education

Long before State-sponsored education systems were introduced, indigenous peoples had their own systems for managing their knowledge and educating their children. These systems, which are rooted in specific cultural contexts, have allowed them to survive as unique peoples. It is on this basis that indigenous peoples advocate for their right to control their own education systems. 

As described by the EMRIP: “To provide and receive education through their traditional methods of teaching and learning, and the right to integrate their own perspectives, cultures, beliefs, values and languages in mainstream education systems and institutions. As concluded in EMRIP, the right to education for indigenous peoples is a holistic concept incorporating mental, physical, spiritual, cultural and environmental dimensions.”

Although many indigenous peoples live in geographically-isolated, self-sustaining communities, many now also live in villages and towns alongside and among majority populations. This poses mutual challenges, and there is thus a growing recognition of the need for an intercultural bilingual education rooted in one’s own culture, language, values, worldview and system of knowledge but which, at the same time, is receptive, open to and appreciative of other knowledge, values, cultures and languages. It also entails learning the majority language and thereby gaining the opportunity to participate in public life, access higher education, influence political decisions and embrace economic opportunities.

A flexible, inclusive and culturally-relevant educational system based on interculturalism and bilingualism will provide indigenous children with the knowledge and skills necessary to function fully as an effective member of both their own community and mainstream society. If properly implemented, it will contribute to achieving individual and community empowerment.

The legal foundations of indigenous peoples’ right to quality education

Education was established as a fundamental human right in 1948 by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the international community has reiterated its commitment to providing quality education to all children, youth and adults in numerous declarations and documents.

Indigenous peoples’ specific educational rights, including their right to establish and control their own education systems and to provide education in their own languages, have been stipulated by, for instance, ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (1989), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (2007), and confirmed, among others, by the Fourth World Congress of Education International (2004), the Preparatory meeting for the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples (Alta outcome document) (2013) and the Lima Declaration of the World Conference of Indigenous Women (2013).

In the Outcome Document from the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (2014) Heads  of  State  and  Government,  ministers  and  representatives  of Member States to the UN reaffirm their support to the UNDRIP and make the following commitments especially related to education: 

Article 11. We commit ourselves to ensuring equal access to high -quality education that recognizes the diversity of the culture of indigenous peoples and to health, housing, water, sanitation and other economic and social programmes to improve well-being, including through initiatives, policies and the provision of resources . We intend to empower indigenous peoples to deliver such programmes as far as possible.

14.We commit ourselves to promoting the right of every indigenous child, in community with members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion or to use his or her own language.

15.We  support  the  empowerment  and  capacity -building  of  indigenous  youth, including  their  full  and  effective  participation  in  decision-making  processes  in matters that affect them. We commit ourselves to developing, in consultation with indigenous peoples, policies, programmes and resources, where relevant, that target the well-being of indigenous youth, in particular in the areas of health, education, employment and the transmission of traditional knowledge, languages and practices, and to taking measures to promote awareness and understanding of their rights.