Florinda was just 11 years old when her family was displaced from the community of San José Yashtinín, San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality, in Mexico’s Chiapas State in 2012. She was unable to continue with her studies for around two years following her family’s displacement because the paperwork and certificates she needed to enrol in a new school were left behind. In 2019 she told CSW she hoped to finish her studies in order to teach other children.
Another woman, Alma, was 17 years old when her education was interrupted after her family was forcibly displaced from their village of Tuxpan de Bolaños, Bolaños Municipality, Jalisco State, in December 2017. She was subsequently unable to enrol in a new school, derailing her plans to become a nurse.
Three years ago, to mark Children’s Day in the country, Alma travelled to Mexico City to meet with government officials. She also met with the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) who expressed regret for what had happened: “We owe you an apology, this country owes you an apology…We have certainly failed in the process but we are here to protect you, so that your trajectory in life is what you want it to be.”
This year, as Mexico observes Children’s Day, we call for more than an apology; we call for action.
The importance of tackling discrimination experienced by religious minority children, and particularly girls, in the educational setting remains as critical as ever.
Studies have shown that indigenous women and girls in Mexico face disproportionate sociocultural barriers to education.1 In indigenous communities across Mexico governed under the Law of Uses and Customs, violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) can exacerbate their plight, especially in the cases of indigenous women belonging to a religious minority.
FoRB violations in these communities affecting the right to an education take three main forms: forced participation in religious activities within an educational setting, prohibitions on religious minority children attending school, and forced displacement due to religious beliefs which can result in children being unable to continue their studies.
The problem has gone on for decades, negatively impacting the lives of women for generations. Years before Alma and Florinda, there was Valentina, who was just 14 years old when she and six other religious minority children were prevented from attending the local school in El Chalate, Mezquitic Municipality in the state of Jalisco in 1986, because their parents had abandoned the majority religion to become Baptists.
Valentina’s parents, hoping that Valentina could continue with her studies, travelled to different places by foot looking for a school to enrol her in, but none would welcome her. Eventually they managed to enrol her in a boarding school, the Santa Clara Catholic Mission, but the school was around 50 kilometres away, meaning Valentina only saw her parents on weekends.
Valentina had only completed the third year of primary school when her parents decided to withdraw her from the school as a result of the long trips they had been making every weekend. She never learnt to speak Spanish, and still only speaks her mother tongue, Wixárika, because she missed out on vital years of education.
Linguistic barriers such as these can have lasting effects on the lives of women like Valentina.2 For example, when CSW met with her along with 24 other indigenous women and two mestiza women for a groundbreaking new report entitled ‘Let Her Be Heard’, we learned that fluency in Spanish can be vital when it comes to indigenous people’s ability to advocate for themselves.
For example, Protestant Christian women in another town in Mezquitic Municipality, Jalisco State were only able to regain access to a government benefit programme that they had been denied because of their religious beliefs after one woman was able to redirect the benefits to another municipality three hours away. One participant stated that this woman was able to influence this change ‘because she knew how to speak Spanish’.
Many of the women we spoke to were illiterate, or their levels of literacy were so low that they needed assistance with reading and writing, meaning that they would often have to rely on indigenous men, who are more likely to speak Spanish, or male interpreters to communicate. In cases like that of Valentina, this makes it difficult for them to share honestly. The shame and stigma surrounding certain experiences of discrimination and violence can also inhibit women from fully disclosing certain incidents. As a result, women’s experiences of FoRB violations are generally underreported.
‘Let Her Be Heard’ sought to address this, carrying out research throughout 2021 in an effort to provide women – a sector of the population that is marginalised in multiple ways – an avenue to articulate and share their own experiences through female interpreters.
Its findings paint a picture in which indigenous religious minority women’s ability to seek redress for violations of their fundamental human rights, including FoRB, can be significantly affected by their language abilities and levels of education. Indigenous religious minority women whose access to education was limited or eliminated when they were children because of their religious beliefs or that of their family are put at an even more severe disadvantage.
Action, not apologies
Findings such as these highlight the need for government interventions that consciously consider the vulnerabilities and barriers facing indigenous religious minorities, and especially girls and women in these communities. The government at all levels must ensure that equal access to education is provided to indigenous girls regardless of their religious beliefs, and offer incentives in order to curb school dropout rates and promote awareness-raising campaigns on the importance of education.
The state and municipal governments must work together to intervene rapidly and effectively when barriers to education affecting religious minority children are put in place by local authorities of indigenous communities and, in cases of forced displacement, develop creative solutions for parents attempting to enrol girls in local schools.
When it comes to adult women, who, like Alma, Florida and Valentina as children, may have had limited access to an education due to various factors including their religious beliefs, the government must provide ongoing learning opportunities for indigenous women, especially early school leavers. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the federal and state governments to be proactive to reach out to women in these communities to ensure that justice mechanisms are understood by and accessible to all indigenous religious minority women in Mexico.
In sharing these women’s stories, the hope is that more women will feel empowered by knowing that their stories matter, and those in positions of power will recognise their responsibility to proactively protect the fundamental human rights of all.
These girls will all grow up to be women one day, and as the Chicano poet Luis Valdez reminds us in his poem on the Mayan concept of In Lak’ech:
By CSW’s Latin America Deputy Team Leader, Emily Featherstone
- Center for Universal Education at Brookings, ‘Understanding Girls’ Education in Indigenous Maya Communities in the Yucatán Peninsula’, 2017, p.4 www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/maria-cristina_final_20171101_web.pdf
- While indigenous religious minority boys may also miss out on an education due to their religious beliefs, indigenous men are often more proficient in Spanish than indigenous women; familial and community responsibilities mean they are more likely to travel to urban areas to buy and sell products, to obtain paid work and to carry out legal or financial affairs, all of which are conducted in Spanish.