Mexico’s indigenous youth have been left behind – here’s how philanthropy can help


Eliza Brennan


There is no quick and simple way to improve opportunities for young indigenous people in Mexico.

By the time indigenous youth reach 15 to 17 years of age, only 65 per cent attend school, compared to 75 per cent of the total population. While the national illiteracy rate is 6% for men and 9% for women, it is more than twice these rates in states with the highest number of indigenous people.

Because of a long history of discrimination, cultural barriers, and poverty, Mexico’s indigenous children are far less likely to be enrolled in school, and on average they spend fewer years in school than non-indigenous children.

The problem is even worse for indigenous girls who are particularly undereducated. Household work is traditionally assigned to women and girls, which often keeps them out of school. When they do attend school, they can experience a hostile school environment with gender discrimination and even violence.

Mexico has astounding wealth inequality, and its indigenous people are much poorer than its non-indigenous people.

Three of every four indigenous Mexicans are poor, compared to only half of non-indigenous Mexicans. They are also more likely to live in states with less access to education.

As UNESCO describes, the Mexican states with the most indigenous-language speakers have ‘lower odds of both access and educational attainment and higher rates of poverty and marginalization.’

Any action needs to take into account the complexities of economic inequality, gender, and cultural factors, and how they affect equity in educational opportunities across various demographics.

This places indigenous people in a precarious catch-22: education plays an important role in lifting people from poverty, yet being poor statistically means less access to that education.

What can philanthropy do?
So what role can philanthropy play in improving opportunities?

Mexican philanthropy and its international philanthropic partners, must focus on bringing new educational opportunities, spreading awareness about violence and discrimination, and teaching job skills relevant to indigenous economies.

Change will come through concentrated efforts to address the economic and cultural factors which affect access to and quality of education — such as through programs that provide professional development workshops, training, and job placement support.

For these types of impactful programs, philanthropy must work with both the national government and the work of local, community-based organizations.

Mexico’s government has identified education as an important priority, and has partnered with UNESCO to improve educational outcomes for indigenous students. This project has three main expected results:

  • Higher quality learning experiences for indigenous students
  • A model of schools adapted to indigenous contexts
  • A review of education policy

Meanwhile, civil society has long been working to get a jump-start on these initiatives.

There are several local, community-based organizations tackling these issues. Fronteras Unidas Pro-Salud in Tijuana offers the Valle Verde library program which is improving literacy for Mixtec migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero who migrated to the border region for work.

The Riviera Maya – Anat Kah Fund also supports education and economic development for local communities in the well-known tourist towns like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel.

Building a new school can be a helpful initiative, but only if the children of the region are able to actually attend — and remain in school.

It is only through coordinated and targeted interventions that we can truly improve the quality of education and long-term wellbeing of indigenous communities in Mexico.

Eliza Brennan is the Marketing and Development Coordinator of the International Community Foundation.

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