Indigenous women and children remain the most disadvantaged group in Guyana, a recent study produced by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MoIPA) has found.
The study was said to be motivated by the findings of Guyana’s Situation Analysis of Children (SitAn) 2016, which found that the health, education and socio-economic indicators for the Indigenous population were among the worst in Guyana.
It is against this backdrop that the study, which is the first of its kind in both the Caribbean and Latin America, seeks to inform countrywide, local and regional strategies, projects and programmes that are aimed at the realisation of children’s and women’s rights as well as the empowerment of indigenous women, children and adolescents.
In the Executive Summary, which was presented last Friday, it was noted that though indigenous populations may be “culturally rich,” they happen to be amongst the most “materially poor and socially excluded people” in the Amazon region.
According to UNICEF, Indigenous Peoples would experience poverty at twice the rate and sometimes even five times more than the non-indigenous population. They are also less likely to access social services and are suffering from the effects of environmental degradation and climate change on their health and wellbeing.
It was also noted that the access to good quality education, health and other social services by the Indigenous peoples continues to be crippled by the lack of access to infrastructure and modern life facilities to the same extent of their counterparts residing on Guyana’s coastlands.
Among the different issues related to education for indigenous girls and boys, two were considered to be the most crucial. First, while enrolment in school is high at the primary level, low numbers are seen at the nursery and secondary levels.
However, it was stated that only 53% of those who had been enrolled into secondary school actually complete the final years of secondary education, as many drop out due to the inaccessibility to schools, financial constraints faced by families, as well as the perception that education is not necessary, among other reasons.
Guaranteeing the good quality of education at both the primary and secondary level for indigenous children remains one of the main challenges related to education in Guyana.
According to the study, the deficiencies in the quality of education delivery in the hinterland are said to be influenced by the lack of qualified teachers and resources such as books and learning materials; poor infrastructure at schools, including buildings which are old and lack computers and internet access; and language barriers (although English is the official language of the country and is taught in schools nationwide, many indigenous students struggle to speak and write in English).
Additionally, the curriculum that is drafted is said to be too focused on topics that are not part of the reality of indigenous children living in the hinterland.
With regard to issues of healthcare in the hinterland, the study found that the nutritional status of indigenous boys and girls in Guyana needs attention, as it has been recorded as being poorer than the national average.
One in every four indigenous children is, as the report stated, “stunted,” creating serious consequences for their cognitive and physical development.
While there is no specific study that can be referenced to understand the possible factors that cause and, or influence the poor nutritional status of indigenous children in Guyana, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) of 2014 found factors which can be explored as a possible cause, including the fact that 16% of indigenous babies are born below 2500g; anaemia is high among indigenous women; the cost of food in the villages is higher when compared to the coast; and the low intake of nutrients among the indigenous population.
In terms of disease and infections, the most common ones were given as diarrhoea, the common cold and malaria. While these diseases have been linked to seasonal cycles, they are also influenced by low levels of nutrition, limited access to improved sources of drinking water and the lack of sanitation and hygiene among children and adults.
Other issues of concern for the Indigenous peoples are the availability of medication; low quality of health care, poor water, sanitation and hygiene practices; difficulty in access to health care; influences of cultural factors; and behavioural health, among others.
Not far behind, are the issues of gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy and the low level of birth registration.
“Birth registration is the foundation of safeguarding many of the child’s civil, economic, social and cultural rights. Among different socio-economic characteristics, the indigenous children are those who have the highest chance of not being registered at birth,” the study said.
This is said to be closely linked to the fact that many births occur outside of facilities, as well as the difficulties faced by the Indigenous peoples when trying to understand the bureaucracy of the birth registration process.
With regards to violence, neglect and abuse against Indigenous women and children, the study stated that this specific group are victims of different types of abuse, and that violence against women, especially sexual violence, is not confined to homes.
“In the villages visited, stakeholders mentioned cases of abuse, sexual assault and rape against women within the boundaries of their villages. While it seems that violence is more visible in those villages that are near mining areas, in all villages cases of violence were reported,” the report said.
Touching on the topic of incest, the study noted that it is not one that is openly discussed in indigenous communities. Nevertheless, respondents were unanimous to mention that cases of incest take place among Indigenous peoples and they do not only involve father-daughter abuse, but also sex between siblings, and stepfathers and stepdaughters.
Additionally, it was stated that though the police claim that these cases are never formally reported, they are aware of such occurrences within the villages they patrol.
Among the influencing factors given for the occurrence of violence, neglect and abuse, three prominent ones were identified: the increased consumption of alcohol and other drugs, social norms and beliefs of the Indigenous peoples and the dependency and fear victims have from perpetrators, thus reducing the number of cases that are reported to the police.
Expanding on the response to violence and abuse, it was stated in the study that the police as an institution is not present in all indigenous communities in Guyana. In those villages without police presence, it is the Toshao and village council who are left to assume the role of responding and preventing violence in their communities.
However, this is reportedly not without its challenges since the Toshaos and village councils do not have the necessary capacity or knowledge to handle such cases.
In conclusion, the study said though it is certain that the indigenous population in Guyana is culturally and land rich, it is not enough to ensure that all their rights are being realised, especially the rights of women and children.
“Qualitative data collected in the past years and qualitative data collected during, April, May and June of 2017 have shown that the indigenous population in Guyana live in a deep vulnerability with historical challenges that are rooted in the social, economic, administrative and political structures of the country,” the report said.
It was also concluded that the situation of the indigenous women and children is backed by a series of social norms that influence how other members of society behave towards them.
Further, while some norms may not have harmful effects, they are also one of the main bottlenecks preventing these two groups from realizing their rights to the fullest extent possible.
With regards to legislation and policies, it was noted that at the national level, one of the main bottlenecks is the lack of complementary policies for the indigenous population and deficiencies in implementation of the current ones.
“While the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs has some policies, the other ministries and agencies do not have anything specific for the Indigenous peoples of Guyana. One of the principles of fighting inequality is to treat differently those that need to improve the most, that is, public policies in all possible sectors must be targeted for them and that is how other Ministries in Guyana plan and implement their policies. At the current stage, it is not possible to have the indigenous boys, girls and women catching up with the other ethnicities in the country without proper policies targeting them,” the report said.
At the end, the one bottleneck that cuts across all determinants is the lack of quality, as described throughout the report. The consequences of the lack of quality impacts in the overall life cycle of children, from conception to childhood. Nevertheless, the report stated that based on the experience gained by visiting the villages and consulting with stakeholders in the field and in Georgetown, one has to assume that solutions for the identified situations must be cross sectorial at the horizon level. That is, there is need for policies and programmes that transcend the borders of the traditional ministries and at the same time, be vertical, adjusting to how the decentralised governance in Guyana is set.
“Improving the situation of the indigenous population in not only a historical debt that the country has to pay; more importantly, it is a strategic and conscious movement towards creating the conditions for the sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be achieved in Guyana, sending to the international community the message that working with the most vulnerable population is possible and providing the means for their socio- economic development results in benefits for the overall country,” the report added.