December 2011

A new law to overcome inequality in education

“Only through better education of the people can the process of development in Bolivia continue”. These were Bolivian President, Evo Morales´ words at a press conference for his newly issued education law last December.

By: Sophia Obermeyer
Projects Abroad Volunteer
NĂĽrnberg - Germany

Children at school patio
Photo: Ximena Noya

This long-overdue law enforces equal access to education in Bolivia and also includes the indigenous languages of Bolivia in public primary school timetables. The government´s priority is to enforce equality between the indigenous and non-indigenous people of Bolivia. For this to happen they have to begin by giving them the same chances from the start. Let’s see how the new law will try to facilitate push towards an equal education – what are the benefits and what are the problems?

With a total illiteracy rate of nearly 13%, Bolivia remains the least literate country in South America. While it is close to Peru´s 12.3% and Brazil's 11.4%, it is still far behind Chile's 4.3% or Argentina's 2.8%. However, despite the fact that the Bolivian government devotes 23% of its annual budget to education, the financial support per child in school still remains the lowest in Latin America. Although there has been significant success over the previous two decades in reducing illiteracy rates and expanding primary school enrollment, there are still enormous disparities in access to, and quality of education.

Made up of thirty-six ethnic groups, each with a different language, the Bolivian population is the most diverse in Latin America. Since 2000, the Plurinational State of Bolivia officially recognizes, along with Spanish, all indigenous languages. Quechuas are the largest ethnic group in Bolivia, making up 35% of the population and the second largest group is the Aymaras, who make up 24%. This rich cultural diversity means that 30% of the population is mixed race, or “mestizos”, who have both European and indigenous origins. White people of European heritage represent only 7% of the total population. 4% are people from the Chaco and the Amazon regions.

Unequal access to education makes the illiteracy rate among indigenous people more than three times higher than among the non-indigenous populations of Bolivia. Additionally, these disparities do not only exist between different social groups in the cities, but also between rural and urban areas. Rural areas in general have a lower level of education with 59% of indigenous children and 66% of non-indigenous children finishing primary education. When compared to urban areas, where 87% of non-indigenous children and 77% of indigenous children complete primary education, the disparity becomes apparent. These figures also show that the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous persists, regardless of rural or urban setting – the most successful children are non-indigenous and live in cities, while the least successful are indigenous children living on the countryside. The problem is that most schools are located in cities, while the countryside has a huge lack of schools, teachers and equipment. In addition, children often have to work to support their families instead of attending school. The goal of elementary education is to enable people to realize their rights as citizens, even though these six years of school are compulsory, enrollment in primary school is often difficult in the countryside.

Children in classroom
Photo: Ximena Noya

The origins of these problems are rooted in the history of Bolivian colonialism. During the colonial era, education was restricted to the sons of white elite families – the conquistadors did not allow the indigenous population to access education as they regarded them as inferior. While it is true that the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people has narrowed in the last few centuries, access to education is still a problem.

In 1995, a new constitution which included equality for everyone came into effect, however one basic human right was overlooked; access to education. As has been the case for centuries, education is currently in Spanish, regardless of the other thirty-six languages. The majority of children who have a mother tongue such as Quechua, Aymara or GuaranĂ­ are not fluent in Spanish when they start school; because of this they face particular problems in primary school, as they struggle to follow the lessons and instructions. Consequently, the gap between native Spanish speakers and the ones who grew up with another language lingers on.

To overcome the problem, a law for equal access to education was introduced in 2006. A section regarding language is included and states; “Education should begin in the mother tongue, because this determines the structure of the human mind and its use is an educational need in all aspects of training.” (Article 15) This new law allows non-Spanish speaking Bolivians to participate in primary school easily. Castilian should only be used as a teaching language in districts with a mainly monolingual population. In regions that show a higher percentage of multilingual students, the lessons should be hold in the native language. For example, here in Cochabamba, the majority of indigenous people speak Quechua, whereas in Beni and Santa Cruz, Guaraní is the most used language. This law follows the current trend of Bolivia’s national policies in allowing and promoting diversity where it already exists. The current president, Evo Morales, remodeled the Republic of Bolivia as the Plurinational State of Bolivia. His politics aim to close the gap between the different classes regarding equality and standards of living. As part of this process, university students are supposed to learn Quechua as well as Spanish, English and French. Most of the students interviewed in Cochabamba like learning Quechua, they feel that being able to speak at least one native language improves their chances in the Bolivian job market. The huge majority of students who reach university grew up with Castilian as their mother tongue.

For the moment, this language policy does not extend to secondary education as the implementation of this law is already facing serious problems in classrooms. Even though children now have an extra subject, they do not stay longer at school each day, meaning that they have to do more work in the same amount of time. The idea was to split the existing language lessons and also budget between English and the second language. For that reason, the total budget and time allocated to English lessons was simply divided between English and one native language or Spanish. In the countryside however, this often meant that English was simply eliminated from the timetable. This has lead to outcry, given the importance of English as a language of international communication and in many cases parents have had to pay for private English teachers themselves. This is controversial, since the philosophy of public schools is to provide free, comprehensive education for all. Similar arguments are put forward for more emphasis on Castilian in public schools.

This law is a first step towards equality in Bolivian education. Apart from the ethnic aspect, this development could also have economic ramifications. If this trend of supporting equal education in Bolivia continues, the economy may grow as a more educated workforce reaches maturity. This creates a stark contrast to previous centuries, when more than half of the population was massively under-educated, and the economy was weak.

La Estudiantina
Municipal: A night at the presidential palac e.

On the 27th of August of 1964, as the group grew bigger it consolidated institutionally under the direction of Victor Jiménez G. who gave it a new impulse that helped the group to project its music at a national level.

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