Every year since 1994, on 9 August we celebrate United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – an opportunity to raise awareness and promote action for advancing the rights of 370 million indigenous people from over 90 countries.

While indigenous peoples make up around 5% of the global population, they account for approximately 15% of the world’s extreme poor, and regularly appear at the bottom of human well-being index ratings.

The reasons behind this are of course complicated, but one of the key causes of this persistent disadvantage and marginalization is the lack of quality education that does not align with their rights as indigenous peoples: education that is well-resourced, culturally sensitive, aligned with their learning needs, languages, priorities and aspirations, and delivered through culturally appropriate teaching strategies, and in culturally appropriate settings.

In many cases around the world, education available to indigenous peoples is not only inappropriate, it also threatens their very existence. Education policies and systems have often been used as a means to systemically discriminate against indigenous peoples, assimilate them (and at times “civilize” them) into the broader society, and thus destroy their culture, languages, identity and rights, and displace them of their lands, territories and natural resources.

These education systems, policies and curricula are rarely developed with indigenous peoples’ participation or consent, and as a result have mostly failed indigenous children and stripped them from vital life opportunities and cultural security.

In addition, given the importance of lands and natural resources to the livelihoods, culture and well-being of indigenous peoples, their traditional knowledge about their lands is also interconnected to education, where elders pass down knowledge, values and their histories to new generations. In every way then, the right to education is connected to all other human rights of indigenous peoples, including land rights.

A legal and moral right to education

And yet, the right to a high-quality and culturally respectful education for indigenous peoples is protected by a number of international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ILO Convention 169, and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Under these conventions and declarations, states are expected and obligated to support and partner with indigenous peoples by integrating their perspectives, cultures and languages into mainstream education systems and institutions, and also by respecting, facilitating and protecting indigenous peoples’ right to share knowledge to future generations by traditional ways of teaching and learning.

But so far we’ve not even come close to achieving this.

Barriers to realizing the right to indigenous education

A 2009 UN study on the challenges of the right to indigenous education identified a number of serious concerns and barriers to realizing the right to indigenous education. It found that indigenous people felt a lack of control over educational initiatives aimed at their children – they weren’t being consulted when these programmes and services were being designed and implemented. As a result, they found that the programmes put in place were not being delivered by indigenous people themselves, were not available in their languages, and did not respect their history, traditional knowledge or culture.

The report demonstrates that designing education programmes for indigenous children, especially women and girls, must recognize and consider their particular needs and the barriers they face in accessing quality education. The report also shows why indigenous students cannot be forced into mainstream education systems which do not integrate their culture or which use a single model of education for all students regardless of who they are, without having adverse impacts on their human rights.

In 2014, a White House report on the state of education for Native American students reached similar conclusions, asserting that “Native youth – and Native education – are in a state of emergency”. Bilingual education programming, inclusion of elders and other respected teachers in the community, and inclusion of culturally appropriate curriculum were suggested as a way to address this. The same prescription for change could apply to numerous other countries around the world.

Quality education for all: a plan

Education is recognized as both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is the gateway by which economically and socially marginalized peoples can lift themselves out of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully in their communities.

Education is increasingly recognized as one of the best long-term financial and social investments countries can make. Appropriate education enables indigenous children and adult learners to exercise and enjoy economic, social and cultural rights. It also strengthens their ability to exercise their civil rights so they can influence political policy processes for enhanced protection of their human rights. Education is therefore a vital means for the enjoyment, maintenance and transmission of indigenous cultures, languages, traditions and traditional knowledge, as well as a vehicle for individual empowerment and agency.

Within international law, indigenous peoples are recognized not simply as stakeholders, but rights holders. This means they must participate in decisions that affect them, including the right to development and education on their own terms and in line with their values, priorities and needs.

The imposition of culturally inappropriate development and policies on indigenous peoples without proper consultation has exacerbated poverty, and led to the loss of their lands, livelihoods, cultures, languages and knowledge systems. Culturally appropriate education systems that are controlled and administered by indigenous peoples will therefore strengthen land and governance rights, livelihoods, and improve cultural, community, and individual resilience and well-being.

The right to education is a universal human right, essential to bridge gaps in human well-being, equity and opportunity. Isn’t it about time we made sure everyone can exercise this basic human right?

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone.