Basic education and gender equality

Report finds minority and indigenous children disproportionately excluded from school

© UNICEF/2009/Bennett
Panel at UNICEF House (from left): MRG Executive Director Mark Lattimer, UNICEF Gender and Rights Unit Chief Daniel Seymour, UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall, 'State of the World's Minorities' contributor Maurice Bryan and editor Preti Taneja.

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – a landmark international agreement on the basic human rights of all children – UNICEF is featuring a series of stories about progress made and challenges that remain. Here is one of those stories.

By Elizabeth Kiem

NEW YORK, USA, 17 July 2009 – Article 30 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child provides specific protection for children from ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. But today, 20 years after the adoption of this international treaty, children from marginalized communities and indigenous groups continue to face extraordinary barriers.

Yesterday, a panel of experts gathered at UNICEF House in New York to discuss one such obstacle: the alarming gap in access to education that affects children from minority and indigenous groups.

The world will not meet Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3 – achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality – "without affirmative action to reach out to the last 10 percent" of children who are not in school, said UNICEF Education Specialist Amina Osman.

'State of the World's Minorities'

A new report, 'State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009', finds that more than half of the 101 million children currently out of school are from minority or indigenous groups. UNICEF experts contributed to the report, which was published by a non-governmental organization, the Minority Rights Group International (MRG), and released yesterday.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0249/Estey
Seventh-grade student Nguyen Dieu Hong, 13, make posters with her classmates during a life-skills training session at a school in Viet Nam's remote Lao Cai Province, where UNICEF is supporting bilingual education for ethnic minority children.

MRG Executive Director Mark Lattimer called the out-of-school estimate "conservative," adding that in countries where the disparity is most stark, the proportion of minority children missing out on education can climb as high as 80 per cent.

The report finds, for example, that girls living in poor families in rural areas who belong to a minority community may never go to school without additional incentives. Since girls are often kept out of school to provide labour at home, cash transfers and targeted scholarships and stipends can help persuade families to send their daughters to school.

Mr. Lattimer said that while there had been progress in the past decade in getting more children into primary school, "those that remain, and are the hardest to get to, are the ones that face multiple, compound obstacles."

Not just an economic problem

Though inequity in education is most grave in impoverished countries, it is not a problem confined to economics.

"Certainly, there are countries where poverty is the issue," said UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues Gay McDougall. "But the real crime is when you find it in developing countries in the midst of wealth."

Ms. McDougall noted that where exclusion from education is a result of discrimination and not lack of resources, "it changes the quality of interventions." In some countries where governments have actively established education programmes tailored to minority groups, she said, the unexpected result has been that students graduating from these alternative programmes are further stigmatized and face continued discrimination in the workplace.

"Education systems that are specific to minorities [must be] integrated into the national system," said Ms. McDougall.

Mr. Lattimer of MRG concurred that discrimination against educated minorities and indigenous groups is "equally, if not more apparent in employment."

International standards

The 'State of the World's Minorities' report, the fourth in a series released by MRG, highlights interventions that have proved effective in addressing educational inequities that confront minority and indigenous groups. These approaches include more school construction in rural communities, incentives for bilingual teachers, and improved birth registration and data collection.

In addition, the report details international standards laying the foundation for rights-based policies that stress the importance of cultural pluralism and the abolition of segregation in schooling.

Such principles are well-established in a number of international agreements, including the CRC and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; they were reaffirmed last December at the UN Forum on Minority Issues, which endorsed the status of education as an inalienable human right.

Still, as Maurice Bryan, who contributed to the report's chapter on Latin America, observed during the panel discussion: "Countries have signed these statutes and treaties. Now governments must live up to them."




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