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Adolescents and youth

Indigenous children speak out at Spanish conference

© UNICEF Spain/2005/Llienas
Queen Sofia of Spain with the indigenous children participants at the Ibero-American Meeting in Spain.

By Gabriela Malo and Maria Blanco

MADRID, 6 July 2005 – Eighty indigenous adolescents from 17 different Latin American countries have gathered together to attend the Ibero-American Meeting on Indigenous Children’s Rights. Anxious teenagers await their chance to be heard. As representatives of their respective indigenous populations, they carry the aspirations and fears of their people as a welcome burden, with a strength fuelled by centuries of discrimination and injustice - and a renewed hope for change. Sitting in the summer sun, they share their experiences, grievances, and expectations. The meeting is sponsored by UNICEF’s regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Spanish Committee for UNICEF, and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation.

At least 40 million indigenous people live throughout Latin America. They speak anywhere from 300 to 400 different languages and comprise ten per cent of the total population of the region.

For most of these children, this meeting in Spain is the most important moment of their young lives. Belonging to dozens of different ethnic groups, many have left their homes in the remote Andes Mountains or Amazon Basin for the first time - to catch a plane they have seen only in pictures - in order to travel to Madrid and speak their minds.

© UNICEF Spain/2005/Martin
Beatriz Veizaga (left) from Bolivia and a friend attend the work sessions.

Many have prepared for this for a long time. Over the past 18 months, for instance, hundreds of indigenous boys and girls from Ecuador participated in consultations on their rights held by UNICEF through the bilingual school system - bilingual meaning Spanish and their native tongue. Then, two hundred of them met in the capital, Quito, and drafted a national agenda for their rights. This agenda describes in their own words and from their own perspective the kind of country they want to live in, and the kind they do not.

Sinchi Chimba is one of those boys. A Kichwa boy from Otavalo, he has high hopes for the future, as most children do.  Another Ecuadorian adolescent, María Ernestina Pilca Cholango said that she is concerned about the preserving her Kichwa culture and language.

Another participant, Yolanda Cupil, a sixteen-year-old from Quetzaltemango, Guatemala, said: “We are equal beings and we deserve the same opportunities in life. The government does not respect this, it only supports non-indigene political candidates.”

© UNICEF Spain/2005/Blanco
Yolanda Cupil, 16, from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Yolanda says that there is so much discrimination in her country that there are only three indigenous members of parliament, despite their significant numbers in Guatemala – more than 50 per cent of the population. This discrimination is causing the loss of their cultural identity in an effort to gain tolerance.

Unfortunately, the ones most affected by discrimination and its negative side-effects are the youngest members of society.

“We need a permanent structure to facilitate political consultation on behalf of youth to improve the conditions for children and young people,” added Yolanda.

The voice of indigenous children has often been a weak one, a voice seldom heard by governments, community leaders, or parents. The meeting in Madrid aims to amplify this voice and project it to the world. For the participating children, it’s a whole new experience. They put aside timidity and speak clearly about the high percentage of them who do not attend school; of those who regularly fail the first year in their initial encounter with a new language; of those who are malnourished and weak; and those mistreated by parents and teachers.

Regardless of the age of these young leaders, their ethnicity, or background, it is certain that these adolescents will take advantage of this opportunity to voice the often-unheard concerns of their people. They are speaking out in an effort to solve the problems of a new generation, problems that should be obsolete in today’s world. As the Ibero-American Meeting on Indigenous Children’s Rights opens, an important step will be taken in that very direction.




Thirteen year-old Alfredo Alavi Cusillio from Bolivia has been preparing for the Ibero-American Meeting in Spain for a long time. This is his story - in his own words.

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Video interview

UNICEF Representative in Ecuador Paul Martin discusses the situation for Latin America’s indigenous children.

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Narrated photo essay

Gabriela Malo from UNICEF Ecuador describes the elaborate preparation by thousands of Ecuardorian children and adolscents for the national and continental meetings on indigenous children’s rights.

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