Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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Children and young people

8 min read

The rights of minority and indigenous children and young people are often not ensured or protected. They face barriers to education, for example, and lack basic health care in many parts of the world. Children are already particularly vulnerable in situations of poverty, conflict and other humanitarian emergencies, and are doubly so if they come from a minority or indigenous background.

Poverty and barriers to education

Minorities and indigenous communities are often some of the poorest in their countries, leaving many children living in impoverished conditions. This in turn limits their access to education. For example, in New Zealand, over 40 per cent of Pacific children are living in poverty. Poverty often forces minority and indigenous families to send their children to work or take care of young siblings rather than attend school.

Minority and indigenous girls face particular barriers to education. In some contexts, girls may experience forced marriage, which prevents them from completing their education. For example, in Mexico indigenous girls tend to marry between the ages of 13 and 16 in arrangements that sometimes involve the exchange of cash. Also, from childhood indigenous girls are expected to help their mothers: their ‘normal’ workday can last as long as 18 hours, leaving little time for education, which in many cases is unaffordable. This has resulted in a gender disparity with regard to education: 50 per cent of indigenous women have not completed primary school, versus 42 per cent of indigenous men.

In Burundi, there is low enrolment and high drop-out rates among Batwa girls in primary and secondary education. An MRG report in 2010 found that Batwa boys and girls from other ethnic groups are twice as likely to go to school as Batwa girls. Drop-out rates for Batwa girls are double those for Batwa boys. Factors contributing to Batwa girls’ lack of access to education include poverty, the attitude of Batwa parents towards the education of girls and early marriage.

Roma and other minority children in Europe are also discriminated against when accessing education. One high-profile case occurred in Sofades, a town in Thessaly, central Greece, where Roma children used to be segregated into a separate primary school. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Lavida and Others v. Greece ruled that this segregation constituted discrimination and a breach of the right to education. However, this was by no means an isolated case – it was the third European Court ruling on discrimination against Roma pupils in Greece.

Language policies and barriers can impact on the education of minority children and young people. For example in Tajikistan, the use of anything besides the majority Tajik language is discouraged and university applicants must be fluent in Tajik. For minority Uzbek communities, this can pose a barrier to education. Although schoolchildren study the Tajik language for two hours a day, for many rural Uzbeks this is not enough to master reading and writing.

In Namibia, Himba and San children are not allowed to wear traditional clothes and are not taught in their mother tongue. As a result, San and Himba lag behind in educational attainment in comparison with other groups: only 7 per cent of San children are enrolled at the junior secondary level, and less than 1 per cent in senior secondary schools. The semi-nomadic lifestyle of Himba also means that children are unable to attend mainstream schools.

Minority and indigenous children can face discrimination at school from pupils or teachers, which leads to higher drop-out rates for minority and indigenous children. For example, in Afghanistan there have been reports that children from Hindu and Sikh communities were forced to drop out of school because of bullying.[i] Minority and indigenous students may find themselves ostracized not only by their peers, but also by teachers responsible for their care.

Minority and indigenous youth

Lack of access to quality education for minority and indigenous children continues to have a negative impact later in their lives. This can lead to lower levels of employment for young people and other serious consequences.

In the United States, sub-standard education for poor students attending schools in less affluent neighbourhoods, as is the case for many African American children, has a long-term impact on their future economic well-being. Furthermore, limited educational opportunities for African American students have been associated with a phenomenon known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’. The increase of police officers inside schools has led to increased contact with the criminal justice system, and infractions which were previously dealt with by teachers and school administrators now lead to fines and even incarceration in juvenile facilities.

This experience has long-term ramifications, as children and adolescents sent to juvenile facilities are 37 times more likely to be arrested again as adults. Students with criminal records are further marginalized in some school districts through the use of alternative schools, which segregate them from the general student population. The discrimination faced by African Americans within the school system is therefore linked to and mirrored by their disproportionate incarceration rates in the country’s prisons, with African Americans accounting for 41 per cent of those imprisoned despite making up just 13 per cent of the national population.

Similarly, for Brazil’s Afro-descendant community there is massive inequality in young people’s access to education and other services. With little opportunity to improve their lives, young Afro-Brazilian men face a high risk of being drawn into drug gangs and violence.


Minority and indigenous children suffer higher levels of ill health and poorer quality of care across the globe. There are also insufficient numbers of health centres, including mother and child health services and tuberculosis clinics, in minority areas.

International studies show that indigenous children have worse health indicators than non-indigenous children in almost every context. They suffer malnutrition and childhood diseases at rates higher than non-indigenous children, as well as greater levels of infant mortality. In the Republic of Congo, mortality from measles has been estimated to be five times higher in Ba’Aka children than neighbouring Bantu communities. Similarly, in Yunnan Province, China, indigenous infant mortality rates have been estimated at almost 78 per 1,000 live births, compared to an average of just under 27 per 1,000 at a national level and under 54 per 1,000 for non-indigenous populations in Yunnan.

In part, these indicators reflect extreme levels of poverty, which are often especially acute among minority and indigenous populations. In India, for instance, Dalit girls are more likely to have stunted growth or be underweight, and child malnutrition is about 14–20 per cent higher for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and has been declining at a slower rate than for the rest of the population over the last 15 years.[ii]

However, health problems can also arise as a direct result of state policies and development programmes – even those supposedly bringing economic benefits to a country or region. In Sarawak, for example, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, logging operations and oil palm plantations have encroached on the indigenous Penan people’s land. As a result, the community has become more impoverished and are suffering from poor health, with Penan children increasingly afflicted by diarrhoea and influenza.[iii]

Mental health problems and suicide rates among indigenous young people can also be higher than those in the non-indigenous population. This is often linked to ‘acculturation’, particularly if the indigenous community has been forced into urban settings, where urban indigenous children and their families lose vital connections to their communities’ traditional lands and cultures, and often experience the worst situations of urban marginalization, discrimination and poverty.

Minority and indigenous girls

Minority and indigenous girls are discriminated against because of their sex and because they are members of a marginalized group. While the difficulties they experience in part reflect their community identity, these challenges are further reinforced by gender inequalities which further marginalize them. For example, girls from minority and indigenous communities often have less access to education and experience higher levels of marginalization at school than either males within their community or girls from majority populations.

They are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, rape, domestic violence and other forms of abuse. For example, in Australia, indigenous women and girls face the highest levels of violence of any ethnic group in the country.[iv] This violence, directly or indirectly, also limits their freedom of movement and access to benefits such as employment, education and health care, not to mention participation in political and civic life. While minority and indigenous girls frequently face violence from majority populations, abuse and inequalities are also experienced within their own communities. For example, harmful cultural and religious practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) in pastoralist communities in Africa, can have lasting impacts on their physical and mental well-being.


Minority and indigenous children and young people, particularly girls and young women, are often denied equal access to education and health care, as well as employment later on in life. Due to intersectional discrimination on account of their age and identity, they are frequently among the most vulnerable populations, and therefore any assistance targeting this group must be designed sensitively to reflect their unique situation. Any programmes and policies designed to protect children’s and young people’s rights must not only treat them as people with agency, but also ensure that the particular perspectives of members of minority or indigenous communities are taken into account.

Jasmin Qureshi

[i] Minority Rights Group International (MRG), State of the World’s Minorities 2012: Events of 2011, London, MRG, 2012, p.131.

[ii] Ibid., p.139.

[iii] Ibid., p. 43.

[iv] Hoare, J. (ed.), State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011: Events of 2010, London, MRG, 2011.

Photo: Roma young women in Romania. Credit: World Bank Photo Collection.