U.N. report focuses on education of indigenous people

Indigenous people throughout the world continue to face numerous obstacles, disparities and challenges in the educational system, a United Nations official said on Monday.

In his fourth report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen said indigenous people are among the world's "most socially marginalized and dispossessed groups." He said they are victimized by discrimination, denied basic rights, dispossessed of their lands and natural resources and often denied basic services.

What contributed to this situation, oddly enough, were educational policies that ignored indigenous people's rights, Stavenhagen added. Native children in Canada and the United States, for example, were taken from their communities and forced to attend government schools where they couldn't speak their language and were taught to reject their heritage.

"The systems of formal education historically provided by the State or religious or private groups have been a two-edged sword for indigenous peoples," Stavenhagen wrote in his report, presented to the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

Stavenhagen said there are three major problems indigenous people face with regard to education. The first is access to education -- indigenous people often do not have the same opportunities as other groups, and according to the report.

"The goal of having all indigenous children attend and complete primary school is still far from being universally achieved," the report states. Indigenous children often attend substandard schools and, in some countries, indigenous girls aren't allowed to attend at all or are subjected to discrimination when they do.

The second major problem identified in the report is that educational systems for indigenous people often do not reflect their own values. Indigenous people are not always included in discussions about school curriculum, leading to education materials that discuss them "in an inappropriate and disrespectful way," Stavenhagen wrote.

The final problem is the most severe, according to Stavenhagen, and persists despite efforts to address the effects of colonization. "Most problematic of all, however, is the fact that throughout much of history the fundamental goal of education has been to assimilate indigenous peoples in the dominant culture," the report says.

To correct these problems, Stavenhagen makes a number of recommendations He says indigenous children need to be taught in their own language and in bilingual settings, that governments need to provide adequate resources to educate indigenous children, that courses need to be developed to teach about indigenous culture and history and that the media needs to include more indigenous-related content.

He also cites a number of examples where indigenous education initiatives appear to be working. In the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and other countries, he says indigenous studies centers and departments have been created at numerous colleges and universities. Some of them are designing programs to meet the needs of indigenous communities.

Stavenhagen says indigenous communities in Canada are getting more support to run their own schools. "The Canadian Government has announced the establishment of an Aboriginal Languages and Cultures Centre to promote indigenous languages and has supported the establishment of the First Nations University of Canada," the report says.

In addition to his fourth annual report, Stavenhagen presented special reports on his missions to Canada and Colombia, where he examined indigenous issues and met with indigenous leaders and government officials last year. He said Canada was making progress in addressing social and economic conditions among First Nations people but that significant problems -- especially in the area of treaty and land rights -- remain.

Indigenous people in Colombia are under a more serious threat due to armed conflicts in the South American nation. In 2003 alone, more than 100 indigenous leaders were murdered, the report says. The rate of violence in indigenous communities is "100 percent higher than the national average," the report adds.

The 61st session of the Commission of Human Rights has been taking place in Geneva since March 14. Attended by 53 governments and more than 3,000 delegations. the session will conclude next week.

UN Reports:
Report of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people | Mission to Canada | Mission to Colombia

Relevant Links:
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights - http://www.ohchr.org/english
Commission on Human Rights - http://www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr