Mother Tongue Education Essential for Indigenous Girls’ Empowerment

A special blog post for International Women’s Day – by Linda Edvardsdottir

In the centre: Besigo, from Progreso, a Ngäbe indigenous community in Costa Rica.

When I was nineteen years old, I volunteered in Progreso, a Ngäbe Bugle Indigenous reservation in Costa Rica. Progreso is a rural community of Indigenous peoples who are spread across a large mountain side close to the Panamanian border. There is one school and education is regarded as very important by the Ngäbe people. To get to school some children must hike in tropical heat for up to two hours. The children often arrive to school exhausted, where they then start studying in Spanish, a secondary language to their own. When it rains, rivers tend to block the roads and the kids have to be sent home early, carrying with them homework in Spanish rather than in their own language.

During my first days living in Progreso I met Besigo who lived a bit further down the mountain with her husband and their entire family. Besigo, who is in a way a pioneer within her own community, is among the women spearheading the community´s spiritual and material growth. She was one of the first individuals from her community to travel to a different continent when she visited Chile last year. She was also among a handful of individuals selected from her community to attend an international conference in Managua, she traveled for two days to meet people from Central and South America and discuss community building in an uplifting environment celebrating the diversity of Latin America.

After my arrival in Costa Rica, Besigo and I soon became friends which was made easy by her openness and frank attitude. She has a special love for English and when I lived in Progreso we would often practice together at the high school, learning each other’s language. The high school which serves a small population of Indigenous youth, conducted all teaching in Spanish, which is mostly used only by the Ngäbe when they are at school. All of the teachers were non-Indigenous and none spoke their language.

Ngäbere, the native language of the Ngäbe people, is a great source of pride for the Ngäbe’s and an important tool to hold on to their cultural heritage. Trying to learn it became a great way to connect with a group of people from a vastly different cultural background than mine.
Besigo shared with me the following about having to study in a different language

“Well, as Ngäbe, we learn our first language, Ngäbere, through our parents. Which we understand very well and which we also learn to read and write in as we grow up. In school, we then learn Spanish with our teachers and my experience has been really beautiful. For us to speak Spanish is really important. To learn a second language and to teach our children to master both languages, to not lose our cultural heritage and to always represent our culture, everywhere we go. And if it is possible to master the third language, which is English, well then, that´s great too.”
(Besigo, personal communication, March 2019)

Education for female empowerment

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states in article 26, paragraph 2:

“Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…”

Worldwide, twice as many girls as boys do not attend school, and twice as many women as men are illiterate (Girls´ Education: A Lifeline to Development, 1996). Girls are still being denied education in many areas around the globe and they must often overcome significant hurdles to stay in school. Increased access to education has been recognized as central to female empowerment (Department for International Development, 2005).

Creating educational opportunities for women has far reaching impacts and is crucial for human development. This is not only because offering girls an education has been found to be one of the most powerful ways to enable women to lead the kind of life they wish to lead (Kabeer, 1999) but as the World Bank (2017) has stated, educating girls is a strategic development priority; women who are better educated generally participate more in the labour market, have higher incomes, marry at an older age, have fewer children and most importantly their children are better educated and get better health care. These factors combined strengthen the economy and help raise households, communities and nations out of poverty (Lei, Johnston & Cox, 2017).

Mother tongue education is recognized as a key area for improving education for all children across the globe

Currently, there around 50-75 million children who are not enrolled in school. Mother tongue education has been shown to be the optimal way to facilitate learning throughout elementary school (UNESCO, 2008a). Simply put, children learn best in a language they understand. They receive better immediate and long-term benefits for their intellectual and personal well-being than when they are forced to learn in a secondary language. When girls, especially from rural areas in developing countries, have better access to studies in their own language they tend to stay in school longer and do not repeat grades as often (Benson, 2005; Hovens, 2002; UNESCO Bangkok, 2005). However, mother tongue education does not receive the attention it should and is most often side-lined in educational policies despite diverse initiatives that are developing tools, models and different resources to facilitate learning programs in the mother tongue (UNESCO, 2008b).

Indigenous girls

Mother tongue education has a special significance for indigenous girls and women. The year 2019 has been dubbed the International Year of Indigenous Languages in efforts to safeguard, celebrate and increase the understanding of the importance of languages for historically marginalized indigenous peoples. As a direct result from colonization, Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples around the world have been disadvantaged and now comprise about 15 percent of the world´s poor (World Bank, 2016). Indigenous peoples present approximately five percent of the world´s population (U.N., 2010) but are typically excluded from educational systems and marginalized from society. This applies especially to Indigenous women and girls (U.N., 2017).

All women experience disadvantages, in varying degrees, due to gender stereotypes and expectations. Indigenous girls, however, face multiple disadvantages compounded by factors such as gender roles, poverty, and discrimination. This has meant that historically, and indeed up until today, Indigenous girls receive the least amount of schooling – a situation that is heightened when schools expect them to learn in a language that is not a part of their environment. Girls tend also to be given fewer opportunities to speak in class and are expected to do less well than boys (Nussbaum, 2003). For Indigenous girls to succeed, they need to be in an educational environment that honours their language and their culture (e.g., Antone, 2003; Gamlin, 2003; van der Wey, 2001).

Culturally safe learning environments

Despite the increased knowledge and research emphasizing the importance of mother tongue education, educational systems continue and often insist on teaching exclusively in one, or occasionally few, privileged languages thereby denying students culturally safe environments. ‘Cultural safety’ refers to practices that allow people from diverse backgrounds to feel safe, where there is shared respect and where there is no denial of one’s individual´s identity (Ramsden, 1990). Culturally safe practices require schools to embrace student´s cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Eckermann, Dowd and Chong, 2010). However, children are often banned from speaking their own languages in school (Arnold, Bartlett, Gowani, & Merali, 2006). This means that globally schools are denying students their fundamental human right to speak their own languages and hindering their identity development. This is then compounded for girls when intersecting factors of discrimination and exclusion build up together and force them out of the educational system.

Mother Tongue Education as a powerful tool for embracing cultural and linguistic diversity

It is every individual´s right to embrace all of who they are and not be forced to reject aspects of their culture, including their mother tongue. Most people agree on the harms of cultural imperialism and want to celebrate diversity. Mother tongue education is a powerful tool to embrace the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of all individuals and facilitate towards cultural safety. All children will benefit significantly from its implementation and it will also facilitate more gender equitable societies as more girls will finish their schooling and enter new and diverse arenas within society. It is necessary then that mother tongue education be made a priority for school children across the globe and a priority in educational policies, with a special focus on indigenous girls during this Year of Indigenous Languages. Besigo’s story shows what is possible when girls are educated and are able to maintain their mother tongue. But Besigo is exceptional. Education policies should not focus on the exceptionally gifted or brave but should provide quality education for all girls (and boys). And that means education in which their mother languages occupy a center place.

I joined the Rutu Foundation, because I believe that the only way we can move forward as a society is to embrace everyone´s cultural heritage, and language is at the centre of our cultural identity. When we deny, especially young people, access to their own languages – a surprisingly common practice in schools across Europe and the globe – we deny them the opportunity to fully realize themselves. Something that is made especially difficult for girls and women who are faced with barriers and discrimination in all areas of their lives.

And let it be known once more that until woman and man recognize and realize equality, social and political progress here or anywhere will not be possible. For the world of humanity consists of two parts or members: one is woman; the other is man. Until these two members are equal in strength, the oneness of humanity cannot be established, and the happiness and felicity of mankind will not be a reality.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 76)

The Rutu Foundation is committed to making mother tongue education part of mainstream education everywhere. Join us.


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