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UN marks International Day of Indigenous Peoples with call to promote their right to education

This year, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (9 August) is devoted to indigenous peoples’ right to education, given the persistent gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous students in terms of access to education, school retention and graduation rates in all regions of the world.

“On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, I call on Governments everywhere … to improve access to education for indigenous peoples and to reflect their experiences and culture in places of learning,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, adding, “Let us commit to ensuring indigenous peoples are not left behind as we pursue the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

A special event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on Tuesday, 9 August, will include three indigenous experts on indigenous education: Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland, currently teaching at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada; Octaviana Trujillo, a member of Arizona’s Pascua Yaqui Tribe, teaching at Northern Arizona University in the United States; and Juan de Dios Simón Sotz, a Maya Kaqchikel, Director General of School Education at the Ministry of Education in Guatemala.

The discussion, to be moderated by Álvaro Pop, the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, will focus on the major challenges indigenous peoples face in accessing education, in particular education that is culturally and linguistically appropriate and which is not viewed as a means of assimilation. The event taking place from 3 to 6 pm EDT, will be broadcast live via UN Web TV.

According to the upcoming report on the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Volume III, on Education, in Nunavut, the northernmost territory in Canada, Inuit high-school graduation rates are well below average, and only 40 per cent of all school-age indigenous children are attending school full time.

In Australia, participation of indigenous 15-19 year-olds in higher education was 60 per cent in 2013, well below the 80 per cent participation for all Australians in the same age group. In Latin America and the Caribbean, on average, 85 per cent of indigenous children attend secondary education, but only 40 per cent complete that level of education.

The right of indigenous peoples to education is protected by Article 14 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which, among other things, states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.” Further, the UN Declaration provides the right for indigenous peoples to all levels of education within the State without discrimination.

The right of indigenous peoples to education is also recognized by a number of other international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Goal 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for ensuring equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for vulnerable groups, including indigenous peoples. However, the 2030 Agenda does not include indicators on mother-tongue language education, an area that indigenous peoples have been lobbying for.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in some 90 countries around the world. Practicing unique traditions, they retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

Experts recommend efforts to ensure that indigenous peoples have access to education that is culturally and linguistically appropriate, with special priority given to indigenous women and girls as well as second-chance, vocational training and adult literacy programmes.

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