Equity Case Studies

Equity Case Study: Mexico - Cross-cutting social innovations for the fulfilment of indigenous children’s and adolescents’ rights

© UNICEF/Mexico2011/Frida Hartz
UNICEF has taken a leading role in promoting and facilitating knowledge on the condition of indigenous children and adolescents, through focusing analysis and disaggregation of data in order to better assess their specific needs.

By Abhijit Shanker

25 October 2011 - Given the exclusion of Mexico’s sizeable indigenous community, securing the rights of indigenous children and adolescents has always been central to UNICEF’s work in the country. In recent years, the Country Office has taken more determined steps to support social innovation in the areas of policy, protection and education, in order to address inequities and achieve more dynamic participation of indigenous children and adolescents in national life. Addressing their situation of social exclusion now lies at the core of UNICEF’s work to promote equity and constitutes an important cross-sector work component within the Country Programme.

This work has several aspects, which altogether aim at influencing decisions and attitudes at the top Government levels, throughout civil society at large, and within the indigenous communities themselves.
The work is based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and on the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169, as well as other instruments. The Regional Programme for the Rights of Indigenous Childhood, supported by the Government of Spain, served as a catalyst to advance the agenda for a more systematic approach to addressing indigenous children rights.


Of the total 39 million Mexican children, 2.2 million (6 per cent) are indigenous. Mexico has one of the highest proportions of indigenous populations in the world, with more than 62 ethno-linguistic groups. The states with the largest indigenous populations are Yucatán (65.5 per cent of its total population), Oaxaca (55.7 per cent), Quintana Roo (45.6 per cent) and Chiapas (30.9 per cent), located mainly in the South and South-East. Most indigenous people live in rural and isolated areas; about 61 per cent live in municipalities with fewer than 2,500 inhabitants.

Indigenous children are also overrepresented among children whose rights are consistently not met, most noticeably in their experiences of poverty, school attendance and achievement at the secondary and upper secondary levels.

Indigenous children are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty – over 87 per cent do – and nearly five times as likely to live in extreme poverty as non-indigenous children. In addition to lagging in school attendance, the data for which indicates that 9.7 per cent of indigenous children under 14 are out of school compared with national averages close to zero, schools that serve predominantly indigenous populations consistently lag in standardized test scores. Furthermore, with respect to the six official dimensions of multidimensional poverty (i.e., access to health, education, social security, quality living quarters, basic services in the home and sufficient food), only 1.5 per cent of indigenous children are considered to have fulfilled their rights to all six.

Given the multiple layers of exclusion these children and adolescents face, significant efforts are required by Government and civil society to ensure equitable opportunities for them to exercise their rights and fully participate in the country’s social, cultural, and economic life. UNICEF is committed to continue supporting these efforts.

Strategy and Implementation

Scope and rationale. The work is integral to the UNICEF Mexico Country Programme and cuts across its different programme components, with the Social Policy Programme providing data and analysis on the fulfilment of rights and the coverage of relevant public policies, the Education Programme promoting educational inclusion, active involvement in school life and bilingual education for indigenous children and adolescents, and the Protection Programme developing social innovations to address protection risks.

The implementation of a multi-sector approach, rather than using a separate programme for indigenous-related issues, is not accidental. By mainstreaming this work into the Country Programme, UNICEF can conceivably achieve stronger political buy-in, greater sustainability, and more durable impact. Promoting the rights of indigenous children and adolescents necessitates the integration of programme activities to address their demands, through an inter-cultural approach that values their backgrounds without stereotyping them as a separate minority. The underlying premise is that being indigenous is not only about preserving cultural heritage or ancestral roots, but also about having aspirations similar to those of other adolescents in their access to education, health, and leisure. Many want to preserve their indigenous languages, and to perfect their Spanish and learn English.

Programme plan. UNICEF’s work in this domain integrates several strategic elements:

(a) Advocacy of several types:

• Vis-à-vis decision-makers and opinion leaders at the national and state levels, to support social policies that recognize and value indigenous culture, including languages as an asset for national development, while at the same time offering to indigenous youths the same social, educational, cultural and economic opportunities available across the country.

• Vis-à-vis general Mexican public opinion, to promote an environment of inter-cultural respect and understanding among indigenous and non-indigenous youths.

• At the community level, to encourage cultural behaviours consistent with a complete rights approach, such as gender equality.

(b) Knowledge generation and technical assistance for authorities and civil society organizations, in order to facilitate equal opportunities through appropriate policies. For example, bilingual education in primary and secondary school is a right on which UNICEF has insisted, by providing technical and financial assistance to public institutions in order to adapt schools’ curricula and print books in native languages.

(c) Strategic, action-oriented partnerships with national authorities and communities, specifically to improve educational inclusiveness and quality. In the state of Chiapas, these improvements are being achieved through monitoring of school attendance via a web-based tool.

Along with these objectives, UNICEF develops key communication messages intended to keep the rights of indigenous children high on the public agenda.

Role of beneficiaries. A key characteristic of this strategic approach is the participatory role that indigenous adolescents play in UNICEF’s work for their own empowerment. They are therefore not only beneficiaries, but also partners in efforts to fulfil their rights. Through these initiatives, they become influential advocates for their own rights and empowered owners of the results.

Progress and Results

Achievements and impact. The programme’s most noteworthy achievements to date include:

Knowledge generation. UNICEF has taken a leading role in promoting and facilitating knowledge on the condition of indigenous children and adolescents, through focusing analysis and disaggregation of data in order to better assess their specific situation and needs in pursuit of more equitable access to rights. Whenever possible, disaggregated data is used to provide evidence of persistent disparities that indigenous populations face and also to assess coverage of government programs and their efforts to reach excluded groups. Recent efforts have yielded estimates of poverty incidence, established a baseline of out-of-school incidence using census data, and developed an online platform for disaggregated data and analysis on the situation.

Intercultural bilingual education (IBE). In the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Yucatán, UNICEF is supporting the implementation of pre-existing state legislation to ensure bilingual education like the National Law of Linguistic Rights for Indigenous People (Article 11) with considerable success. UNICEF contributed significantly to reach this objective, through close monitoring and technical support provided to authorities, civil society organizations and indigenous organizations in those states. Through its implementing partners, UNICEF has trained more than 300 educational staff in IBE and in the implementation of related pedagogical techniques like language nests in Oaxaca. These actions have contributed to improving the quality of education and combating the high rates of school drop-out among indigenous children and adolescents. In recent years, UNICEF has also been supporting several national initiatives on IBE to promote public policies in this area, for example the First National Meeting on IBE materials that took place in Mexico City in 2010.

Early child development (ECD). Didactic ECD materials, such as videos demonstrating parenting techniques which are culturally pertinent to indigenous uses and customs, have been made available through all the Primary Health Centers in states with high percentages of indigenous populations. UNICEF has so far supported their production in 14 different indigenous languages.

Adolescent participation. Major ongoing initiatives promote the participation of indigenous adolescents at school as well as in society, thereby raising youth awareness of their rights and the importance of exercising them. Among these efforts, two are particularly noteworthy:

Student associations have been established in more than 100 schools. Their impact is positive and clear: participating students are better equipped to peacefully resolve conflicts within their communities and with non-indigenous counterparts.

The multimedia publication “Voices of Indigenous Youths” launched in August 2011 stands out not only as an achievement, but also as a tool which will further enable UNICEF to proceed in promoting participation and helping decrease exclusion. The publication features more than 250 adolescents asserting their rights and appealing to authorities and civil society to work with them for their implementation.

Gender-based violence. With so many other pressing needs within indigenous communities, programmes to address gender-based violence and violence against indigenous children and adolescents are rare in the region. As part of a UN Joint Programme to prevent gender violence in indigenous communities, UNICEF is building the capacity of local actors to develop and implement inter-institutional protocols against gender-based and other forms of violence against children and adolescents. This effort involves promoting dialogue about gender violence between formal judicial authorities and traditional indigenous authorities. The programme also opens channels, so far nonexistent, for victims and witnesses from indigenous groups to report cases of violence, including those of gender violence and sexual exploitation, and to strengthen the capacity of duty bearers to promote individualized and integral responses that include psycho-social support, legal redress and the protection of other rights.

Community-based rehabilitation for children with disabilities in indigenous communities. It is common for children with disabilities in rural and indigenous communities to face multiple forms of discrimination and to have very limited or no access to services that could ensure their full development, inclusion and participation in the community. On learning that disability was one of the two main reasons for children being out of school in municipalities with a low Human Development Index in an area-based initiative in Oaxaca state from 2007 to 2010, UNICEF and implementing partners developed a community-based rehabilitation programme adapted to indigenous children, in order to generate evidence for the wider uptake of such an approach. The three-year initiative in remote rural communities addressed issues of prevention, early identification of children with disabilities, their rehabilitation in the community, referral in cases of medical concern, and social inclusion. Community workers with command of indigenous languages were employed by state authorities to promote the social inclusion of children with disabilities, addressing family and community attitudes, and working with a number of stakeholders including mayors and local councils, teachers, health and welfare staff. The initiative was evaluated positively by researchers from the National Public Health Institute, as suitable for replication.

Promoting school inclusion for children of indigenous migrant farmworkers. One of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in Mexico are the children of migrant farmworkers, who are predominantly of indigenous origin. As whole families migrate to seek seasonal employment, travel interrupts the little schooling to which such children may have access and exposes them to health, nutrition and child labor risks. UNICEF has been working with educational authorities and agricultural producers in one of the main agro-exporting states, Sinaloa, to break the traditional paradigm that such children cannot be integrated into local schools during the six to eight months they spend there. In the 2009-2010 school year, over 13,500 children of migrant farmworkers were integrated into the local educational system, with UNICEF support for an innovative teaching method with an inter-cultural focus to address age-for-grade distortions which customarily affect them. As part of efforts to eliminate child labor, UNICEF has encouraged agricultural producers to provide or support after-school activities for these children on agricultural properties and in school facilities.

Birth registration as an equity-promoting strategy. Reaching indigenous children is fundamental to any Mexican national strategy to close gaps in universal birth registration. UNICEF has designed a strategy using newly available disaggregated data to zero-in on the municipalities with the lowest registration rates, which in the main are rural and have high indigenous populations. UNICEF is supporting governments in Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca to reach these populations in the municipalities with the lowest Human Development Index, strengthening capacity in civil registration and through other social policies (health, education, social protection). For instance, in Chiapas UNICEF is supporting the training of traditional birth attendants to promote birth registration in indigenous populations, and is ensuring that public information campaigns reach indigenous communities through broadcasts in indigenous languages. A combination of these and other strategies resulted in a 20 per cent increase in the number of children aged 0-18 registered in the state of Chiapas between 2009 and 2010. This approach is now serving as a model for national efforts to reach the last 10 per cent of unregistered children who are excluded from social programmes.

Through a range of efforts, UNICEF continues to contribute to equity for indigenous children and adolescents, in a country filled with opportunities. Nevertheless, the road ahead remains long, and persistence and innovation are necessary for progress.


The geographical isolation of many indigenous groups poses significant logistical challenges, making many target communities hard to reach and requiring significant investment of time and resources. UNICEF is resorting to methods including radio communication, loudspeakers and internet where available.

Historical social exclusion of indigenous groups limits their awareness of rights and participation in society. Therefore, the starting point for UNICEF’s efforts toward their empowerment is very low.

The media often contributes to stereotyping of indigenous groups, through coverage of youth violence and crime without sufficient attention to their context of exclusion and to their demands for improved access to their rights.


UNICEF has consistently insisted on making disaggregated data available and easily accessible so it can be considered as part of the public policy formulation process. To this end, UNICEF Mexico has worked with state-level counterparts to encourage the use of such disaggregated data on indigenous children and adolescents when reviewing policies that affect youth and when developing situation analyses that pinpoint disparities. In addition, ongoing assessments of child poverty and coverage of social programmes have provided a platform from which to engage various sectors of the government and advocate for policies that reach the most disadvantaged children. By way of example, ongoing analysis of coverage of social programmes is being matched with calculations of public spending by government programmes to make recommendations on how to distribute them more equitably.

Next Steps

The next steps in implementing this strategy include:

The multimedia publication “Voices of Indigenous Youths” will serve as the launch pad for a holistic advocacy strategy, to disseminate messages on the importance of participation and inclusion for indigenous adolescents. Components include workshops, a dedicated web site about indigenous youth and their rights and distribution of the publication in schools across the country.

UNICEF will increasingly support the involvement of the private sector in initiatives aimed at the empowerment and participation of indigenous youths. UNICEF will actively seek their engagement beyond their role as donors in providing a platform for advancing the rights of indigenous youths.

In order to enhance data disaggregation and analysis in states with high presence of indigenous populations, UNICEF will publish situation analyses aimed at gauging equity gaps and thereby will contribute to the formulation of appropriate policies.

Monitoring and evaluation will also be enhanced in order to better assess the impact of UNICEF’s actions and its cooperation with government authorities.




 Printer friendly

New enhanced search