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Indigenous Children and Education: Struggles Across the Globe

Indigenous Peoples make up 15 percent of the world’s poor and one-third of the world’s extremely rural poor. They are subject to land grabbing, intimidation, discrimination, displacement and violence, and children are particularly vulnerable. When it comes to Indigenous children and education, there are a plethora of struggles faced across the globe.

The list of barriers to educational attainment for Indigenous children includes the devaluation of their own teachings, knowledge and culture, the whitewashing of history and deeply entrenched institutional racism. Rural children often can’t reach schools because they are too far away, and supplies, textbooks and school fees can be too expensive for many families to afford. Even when Indigenous children do reach the classroom, their lessons are not typically taught in their language and their curriculum is not culturally sensitive. They face discrimination and harassment by fellow students and by their teachers.

Quechuan parents in Peru were surveyed regarding their children’s education, and many revealed that they wouldn’t even teach their children their mother tongue at home for fear of the ostracization they would face at school. This fear and disenfranchisement leads to disproportionately low enrollment rates and high dropout rates.

In Botswana, corporal punishment is acceptable in Tswana culture (one of the ethnic majorities) but not acceptable in Basarwa culture (one of the Indigenous ethnic minorities.) This has led to very high drop-out rates among the Basarwa, and today 77 percent of the Basarwa are illiterate.

In 2012, Indigenous students made up 4.8 percent of all students, which is double their relative proportion of the population. The Indigenous population is young and growing, leading to higher school enrollments. This comes with its own challenges. Connecting Indigenous children and education – quality, accessible education – requires teachers to work hard to respect Indigenous culture and incorporate it into their curriculum.

Schools must also provide other resources to Indigenous children. According to a report by The Conversation, “many (not all) Indigenous children are under stress (educationally, socially, emotionally) due to low income, family mobility, overcrowded homes, and poor health and disability.”

The Murri School in Queensland, Australia, partners with Aboriginal health services to provide family support and healthcare, as well as occupational therapy, to their Indigenous students. This holistic approach better meets the needs of Indigenous students and increases retention rates.

In 2006, Cambodia introduced bilingual education in five of its provinces, allowing Indigenous children to attend schools taught in their native language. This helped close the gap in the number of out-of-school Indigenous children. Also in 2006, Ethiopia introduced alternative educational programs (such as mobile schools, flexible learning environments, boarding schools and bilingual education) to its Afar and Somali regions. This also had a positive impact on Indigenous children and education.

In 2010, there were no Indigenous adolescents enrolled in university in Cameroon. At the primary and secondary level, birth registration cards were often required for enrollment, and Indigenous Peoples face many barriers to receiving identity cards and being properly registered. Additionally, the academic calendar did not align culturally with Indigenous Peoples such as the Baka. Children were kept out of school to work in the forests with their parents.

Indigenous Peoples developed a curriculum called ORA (Observe, Reflect, Act) tailored specifically toward young Baka children. It is culturally sensitive, hands-on and aligns with the agricultural calendar. It aims to teach Baka children to read, write and count.

While Indigenous children across the world face innumerable challenges in receiving a quality education, Indigenous-specific measures can remedy this. For Indigenous children around the globe, “the key to success is to nurture a positive sense of identity, to engage positive community leadership and to nurture high expectations relationships.”

Olivia Bradley

Photo: Flickr