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Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is widespread

Ethnicity, as a set of characteristics - cultural, social, religious and linguistic - that form a distinctive identity shared by a community of people, is a natural expression of human diversity and a source of strength, resilience and richness in the human family. But when a child faces discrimination or marginalization because of ethnicity, the risk of exclusion from essential services rises sharply.

There are some 5,000 ethnic groups in the world, and more than 200 countries have significant minority ethnic or religious groups. Most countries - around two thirds - have more than one religious or ethnic group that accounts for at least 10 per cent of the population.

Some ethnic groups are spread across national borders - for example, the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe or the Maya in the northern countries of Central America and southern Mexico. Some are minorities, accounting for a small proportion of the national population, while others make up a significant share of the population but have little power in society as a result of their isolation and, very often, deep historical disadvantage.

A common thread among ethnic minority groups is that they often face considerable marginalization and discrimination. Almost 900 million people belong to groups that experience disadvantage as a result of their identity, with 359 million facing restrictions on their religion. Around the world, some 334 million people face restrictions or discrimination related to their use of language. In over 30 sub-Saharan African countries (containing 80 per cent of the region's population), for instance, the official language is different from the one most commonly used, and only 13 per cent of children in these countries are taught in their mother tongue in primary school.

Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity can erode self-worth and confidence in children and deprive them of opportunities for growth and development, blunting the promise that is every child's birthright. Prejudice at the community and institutional level can restrict opportunities for members of an ethnic group. In terms of career choices and advancement, access to political office or community leadership, members of ethnic minorities may find their participation in society limited - even where there are laws prohibiting bias and exclusion.

Exclusion based on ethnicity can lead to street violence, armed conflict and even ethnic violence - witness the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the atrocities along ethnic lines being committed in Darfur, Sudan since 2003.

Indigenous children and families often face multiple barriers to their participation in society

There are some 300 million indigenous peoples in more than 70 countries, around half of whom live in Asia. Indigenous peoples have many characteristics and experiences in common with ethnic minorities, but they are distinct from them in that they are more likely than ethnic minorities to insist on their right to a separate culture linked to a particular territory and their history. In certain countries, such as Bolivia, Greenland (Denmark) and Guatemala, indigenous people represent the majority of the population.

Indigenous children can suffer cultural discrimination and economic and political marginalization. They are often less likely to be registered at birth and more prone to poor health, low participation in education and abuse, violence and exploitation. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern about the particular position of indigenous children in Australia, Bangladesh, Burundi, Chile, Ecuador, India, Japan and Venezuela. Many of them are still denied their rights under the Convention, especially with regard to birth registration, access to education and health care services.

Case studies in individual countries suggest that infant and child mortality rates are higher among indigenous groups than in the national population. Many factors contribute to these disparities, including environmental conditions, discrimination and poverty. Health services - including vaccination against preventable diseases - are often lacking in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. In Mexico, for instance, there are an estimated 96.3 doctors per 100,000 people nationally but only 13.8 per 100,000 in areas where indigenous people make up 40 per cent or more of the population.

Indigenous children are also less likely to be registered at birth, in part owing to the absence of information on the issue in their mother tongue. This can result in chronically low levels of registered children at birth: for example, in the Amazonian region of Ecuador only 21 per cent of under-fives have a birth certificate compared with the national average of 89 per cent. The distance to the nearest registration office and the cost of the certificate can also be severe deterrents.

Indigenous children tend to have low school enrolment rates. Scarce educational facilities, the failure of governments to attract qualified teachers to work in the often remote areas where indigenous people live and the perceived irrelevance of much of the school curriculum for the local community - all of these act as disincentives to school participation.

When they attend school, indigenous children often begin their formal education at a disadvantage to other children because they are unfamiliar with the language of instruction. Research indicates that it takes until the third grade before their comprehension begins to match that of children who speak the dominant language.