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Education in Guatemala

Statement of Need: Education in Guatemala

In Quetzaltenango it is not unusual to walk along the street in the afternoon and see small children, some as young as five years old, hard at work selling candy, polishing shoes or transporting goods in small carts. Some of these children never had the opportunity to attend
school, perhaps because their families needed them to work, or because they didn’t have the paperwork to enroll. Other students may have dropped out after attending their local public school for several years for lack of motivation. The situations vary but the facts are clear: the Guatemalan public education system is failing the children who need it most.

Manuel, 12 year old truck driver, San Andreas Xecul

Nationwide, Guatemalan public schools are underfunded and over-enrolled while private schools, often the only alternative, are too expensive for the majority of the population to afford. Unfortunately the Guatemalan government is doing little to help the situation. In 2008 the government spent a meager 3.2% of its GDP on education falling far below the Latin American average of 4.7%. The affects of this low budgetary allocation have been severe and have contributed to a 6th grade graduation rate of less than 30%.

In Quetzaltenango these problems have been exacerbated by inequalities among the city’s indigenous and non-indigenous populations. Located in the western highlands, the traditional home of the Quiche and Mam communities, Quetzaltenango is home to a large percentage of people of Maya descent. While this has made Quetzaltenango a culturally rich and fascinating city it has also made it a unique location from which to view the educational disparities between the cities indigenous and non-indigenous populations.

While the statistics state that over 50% of the population of Quetzaltenango is indigenous, the majority of the indigenous population does not live in the city proper, but in rural communities on the outskirts of the city. Many of these communities do not have schools and the schools that do exist are poorly funded compared to schools in urban sectors. According to a study conducted by UNESCO in 2010, children from indigenous households in Guatemala are, on average, less likely to enter primary school programs and more likely to repeat grades than non-indigenous children. These disparities are rooted in Guatemala’s history of social and political oppression of the indigenous people and are perpetuated by the unequal allocation of public funds for the education of indigenous children.

Indigena children in Shirley's neighborhood

It is critical that we address these problems now and that we do not allow these disparities to perpetuate a history of oppression and inequality. Educational opportunities must be improved for both indigenous and non-indigenous children, and must begin to combat the severe social prejudices that plague the country. Rather than separating children into different schools by city zone, a factor often determined by financial status, it is important that schools begin to draw children from diverse backgrounds and create environments in which they can learn collaboratively. Only by creating opportunities for children to work together in the classroom can we help them to surmount the prejudices of the country in which they were born and begin to erode the inequalities that exist.

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