Equity Perspectives on the Rights of Indigenous Children
By Beatrice Duncan and Nicola Brandt
Human Rights Cluster
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) estimates that
indigenous peoples represent 5 per cent of the world’s population, numbering some 370
million individuals living in approximately 90 countries around the world. Indigenous
peoples in many countries continue to be among the poorest and the most marginalized
due to factors, such as a lack of access to education and social services, destruction of
indigenous economies and socio-political structures, forced displacement, armed conflict
and the degradation of their customary lands and waters. The Forum estimates that
indigenous peoples constitute 15 per cent of the world’s poor.
Who are indigenous peoples?
The diverse nature of indigenous peoples cannot be easily captured into a single definition.
Indigenous groups and the international community at large are agreed that a formal
definition of the term “indigenous peoples” is neither necessary nor desirable. Through
objective and subjective criteria, the term “indigenous peoples” has become a general
denominator for distinct peoples who, through historical processes, have been pursuing
their own concept and way of human development in a given socio-economic, political and
historical context. Throughout history, these distinct groups of peoples have tried to
maintain their group identity, languages, traditional beliefs, worldviews and way of life and,
most importantly, the control and management of their lands, territories and natural
resources, which allow and sustain them to live as peoples.
Processes, mechanisms and systems
Two global international decades in support of highlighting and addressing the rights of
indigenous peoples have so far been declared by the United Nations. The First Decade of the
World’s Indigenous Peoples (1994-2004) achieved a number of objectives among which
included the establishment of a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2000. The Forum
is an advisory body of ECOSOC with a mandate to provide guidance and recommendations
for redress around social, cultural and economic rights and conditions of indigenous peoples
and has in this respect been a catalyst for change. Its work is complemented by the Expert
Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the Human
Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both established by the Human Rights Council in support of
the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples.
Under the theme, “Partnership for Action and Dignity”, the Second Decade of the World’s
Indigenous Peoples (2005-2015) was declared by the General Assembly,1 with the goal of
See Resolution 59/174 of 20 December 2004.
further strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by
indigenous people in such areas as culture, education, health, human rights, the
environment and social and economic development, by means of action-oriented
programmes and specific projects, increased technical assistance and relevant standard-
setting activities. A significant achievement of the Second Decade has been the adoption of
the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
Human rights standards
Indigenous peoples enjoy both individual and collective rights. Individual rights are those
derived from the general body of human rights law, such as the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial,
Discrimination, 1965, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 and the Convention on
the Rights of the Child. Collective rights are those designed to respond to their rights as a
group and cover a number of areas such as rights to lands, territories and resources.
The World Conference on Human Rights of 1993 recognized the inherent dignity and unique
contributions of indigenous people to the development and plurality of society and
reaffirmed commitment to their economic, social and cultural well-being and their
enjoyment of the fruits of sustainable development.
ILO Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Populations in Independent Countries
was adopted by the General Conference of the International Labour Organisation in 1989,
which was same year in which the General Assembly considered and adopted the CRC.
It is the first comprehensive legal framework to accord indigenous peoples a full range of
civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights, underscoring the right to be
different and to exercise such a right through recognition and acceptance of the institutions,
ways of life, methods of economic development, identities, languages and religious beliefs
of indigenous peoples. A characteristic feature of the Convention is its equity-based notion
of addressing the increasing gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous populations in all
aspects of development. Article 2 (1) and (2) (c) for instance, call on government to
undertake with the full participation of indigenous peoples a co-ordinated and systematic
action to protect the rights of indigenous peoples and to guarantee respect for their
Such action are to include measures for assisting the members of the peoples concerned to
eliminate socio-economic gaps that may exist between indigenous and other members of
the national community, in a manner compatible with their aspirations and ways of life
(emphasis added) through measures such as education, vocational training, health and
The Convention is complemented by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples of 2007, which as noted is an important achievement of the Second Decade. The
Declaration is guided by principles such as non-discrimination; free prior and informed
consent and respect for indigenous peoples rights to territories, lands, resources and
The rights of indigenous children
The Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first human rights treaty to accord full
recognition to the rights of indigenous children. Article 30 is the central piece which notes:
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of
indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall
not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to
enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use
his or her own language.
It is further supported by (17) (d) which encourages the mass media to have particular
regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is
indigenous; and further more by 29 (1) (d) which calls for one of the aims of
education to be to prepare the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit
of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all
peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin
In 2003, the UNPFII held its second session on the theme indigenous children and youth and
the same year the Committee on the Rights of the Child held its Annual Day of General
Discussion on the Rights of Indigenous Children, adopting specific recommendations aimed
primarily at States parties, UN entities, human rights mechanisms, civil society, donors, the
World Bank and regional development banks on the promotion of their rights.
The Declaration provides in-depth and direct reference to indigenous children. Similar to the
CRC (article 5), it notes the rights of indigenous families and communities to retain shared
responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children. States
are to provide supportive measures to ensure their access to all levels of education in the
language and cultural contexts of indigenous children.2 The Declaration also has elaborate
provisions on the protection of indigenous children. These are in the form of full protective
guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination including economic
In 2009, the CRC Committee issued its General Comment 11 on Indigenous Children and
their Rights under the Convention with the objective of providing stakeholders with
guidance on how to implement their obligations under the Convention with respect to
indigenous children. The Committee recommends a range of measures such as
disaggregated data collection, legislative reform, adequate resource allocation and
educational measures to change attitudes towards indigenous peoples, particularly children.
It notes further, that particular attention should be given to girls and children with
See Section 14 of the Declaration.
Ibid. Sections 17 and 22. Articles 9 and 10 of ILO Convention 169 also make provision for children to benefit
from indigenous traditional penal systems.
disabilities in order to ensure through special measures that they enjoy their rights on an
equal basis with all other children.
Building the evidence and narrowing the gaps
Data on the socio-economic conditions of indigenous children tend to be limited. In those
countries where data is available however, the evidence shows that they suffer various
forms of disparities across all sectors. Examples are provided in birth registration, health and
In some countries indigenous children, to a greater extent than non-indigenous children,
remain without birth registration and stand at a higher risk of being stateless. In some Arab
countries in particular, indigenous communities are compelled to give their children Arab
names or risk the chance of not registering their children.
In Guatemala, 53.5 per cent of indigenous young people aged 15-19 have not completed
primary education, as compared to 32.2 per cent of non-indigenous youth.4 Although infant
and child mortality has been steadily decreasing throughout Latin America over the last four
decades, child mortality is still 70 per cent higher among indigenous children. Furthermore,
malnutrition is twice as frequent among indigenous children in the region.5
In most countries, indigenous children have low school enrolments, poor school
performance, low literacy rates, high dropout rates, and lag behind other groups in terms of
academic achievements nationally. Illiteracy, which is prevalent in indigenous communities
is a direct result of educational exclusion in the form of poor access, low funding, culturally
and linguistically inadequate education and ill-equipped instructors. Among the H’mong of
Viet Nam, one of the most marginalized of the country’s indigenous groups, 83 per cent of
men and 97 per cent of women are illiterate; in many small communities in Southern
Arnhem Land (Australia), up to 93 per cent of the population is illiterate. In Ecuador, the
illiteracy rate of indigenous peoples was 28 per cent in 2001, compared to the national rate
of 13 per cent12, while in Venezuela the indigenous illiteracy rate (32 per cent) is five times
higher than the nonindigenous illiteracy rate (6.4 per cent).6
The various human rights instruments in addition to the guidelines and jurisprudence being
developed by the CRC Committee through State Party reporting present unique entry points
ECLAC (2005), 101.
ECLAC (2007), 191.
See State of the World’s 132.
for UNICEF to advocate for and promote the rights of indigenous children. While the
organisation has been doing so for over 60 years in the Latin America and Caribbean region
through support for the provision of bilingual and intercultural education; culturally
sensitive health services; protection and data collection, the human rights landscape opens
the door for broader collaboration and partnerships in other regions.
For instance in Africa, where there has previously been general resistance to the notion of
the existence of indigenous peoples, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and
Communities of the African Commission has laid this matter to rest by declaring that such
groups do exist on the continent. In Asia, a number of partners such as the Asian
Development Bank and RIPP exist to expand support to children. To make this expansion
happen, it is critical that UNICEF appreciates the specific attention to indigenous children
within the broader equity focus as well is within the overall framework of the MTSP.
Reaching the most deprived and most vulnerable children has become an even more pivotal
focus of UNICEF’s work, as emerging data and analysis increasingly confirm that deprivations
of children’s rights are disproportionately concentrated among the poorest and most
marginalized populations within countries.7 The central place given to equity in the
international standards affecting the rights of indigenous children is an opportunity that
cannot be missed and which must be given due emphasis and recognition as the lens on
excluded and marginalized groups are sharpened.
Extending the benefits of development to indigenous children would require an
improvement in data collection in regions such as Africa and Asia. This would facilitate
evidence building in support of research, advocacy, policy development and legislative
reform. UNICEF has an important role to play to ensure universal ratification of ILO 169 and
its full implementation alongside that of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples. It is only when indigenous children are taken into account in all programme design,
implementation and monitoring that the organization will reap the desired dividends in the
See UNICEF, Narrowing the Gaps to Meet the Goals, 2010.