Poverty relates to not only economic conditions and growth. Expansion of human capabilities should be a more basic locus of poverty and a more basic objective of development, a fact that has been recognized by leading development economists such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Poverty is, thus, ultimately a matter of ‘capability deprivation’. In the context of Nepal, dominant-language medium education for indigenous children has curtailed the development of their capabilities and perpetuated poverty.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) Article 17, 29 and 30 state, “State parties shall encourage the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous”; “a child belonging to a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, to profess and practice his or her own religion or to use his or her own language.”
Also, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIPs) Article 14 clearly states that: “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages” and that “States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, to have access, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.”
Nepal is signatory to various human rights treaty bodies such as the UNCRC, UNDRIPs, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), etc. Although these treaties call for addressing of the situation of indigenous children and their right not to be discriminated, Nepal’s education establishment has made next to no effort in protecting the rights of indigenous children.
The state policies have deprived indigenous children of their right to study in their own language by making the official language of the country the language of instruction in primary schools. Such state education policies have forced indigenous children whose mother tongue is an indigenous language into education through the medium of the dominant state language. Furthermore, children from the Brahmin and Khas communities, with the “Nepali language” as their mother tongue, continue to benefit systematically, whereas indigenous children fall further behind. The use of a dominant language as the medium of instruction for children who are still struggling with basic expression in that language hampers not only their academic achievement and cognitive growth, but also their self-perception, self-esteem, emotional security, and their ability to participate meaningfully in the educational process. Subtractive education where children learn a dominant language at the cost of their mother tongue is the predictor of their educational success, or lack of it. Such discriminatory policies have resulted in serious social dislocation, and psychological, cognitive, linguistic and educational harm such as dipping school achievement of indigenous children and higher dropout levels.
Take the case of the Buddhist scholars graduating from Sanskrit universities from Nepal and India gaining recognition, while scholars from centuries-old Buddhist monastic institutions receiving the same Buddhist philosophical studies are not recognized because of the state’s discriminatory language policy. The Nepali government on the other hand has promoted Hindu gurukul system and made gurukul graduates eligible for government jobs.
Thomas and Collier’s longitudinal study of the education of minority students encompassing more than 210,000 students both in rural and urban areas, the largest of its kind in the world, found the students who reached the highest levels of both bilingualism and school achievement were those whose mother tongue was the main medium of instruction. The length of education in children’s mother tongue was the strongest predictor of both the children’s competence and their school achievement. Hundreds of other studies have come to similar results. Therefore, it is important to understand that medium of instruction/language is a decisive factor for school achievement among indigenous children. Subtractive education violates children’s right to education and reinforces inequality. Such a form of education has profound consequences for indigenous children’s life chances, which Amartya Sen defines as “capability deprivation”.
The length of education in children’s mother tongue is the strongest predictor of their school achievements and overall competence.
Other contributing factors for low achievement of indigenous and marginalized children is poor quality of education in government-run schools, unavailability of qualified teachers, poor infrastructure, absence of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, high teacher to student ratio, among many others, which have all contributed to high dropout rates, thereby failing to increase indigenous students’ access to education in a meaningful way.
In recent years, the government, with the financial assistance from international donor agencies, has increased investment in education to achieve “Education for All” Millennium Development Goal (MDG). These efforts have increased school enrollment rates in Nepal but due to the discriminatory state policy on language of instruction, the retention rates are still very low. The process of educational reform initiated after 2006 people’s movement is still at a preliminary stage. Therefore, it is unlikely that Nepal will succeed in achieving MDG on education.
The state educational policy has also led to economic, social and political marginalization as well as near extinction of indigenous languages. Such policies, implemented in the full knowledge of their devastating effects, constitute international crime, including linguistic and cultural genocide.
A constitution with federalism based on identity is therefore necessary to promote inclusive multilingual education system guaranteeing mother tongue as a language of instruction in schools, while also promoting instruction in the dominant language as a second language.
The author is a PhD student in preventive medicine and epidemiology, University of Oslo
This article shows the true face of Nepal and the reason for the degradation of indigenous groups. This article is a must read for all the teenagers and students belonging to an indigenous group, it is very influential and makes one aware of where we stand. Articles like these must be written more often to show Nepalese, the mirror of their society. Totally loved it, worth reading.