Indigenous people everywhere miss out on vital services

Indigenous people miss out
Copyright: Penny Tweedie / Panos

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  • Indigenous people face unequal struggle to access healthcare and education
  • This lowers life expectancy and educational attainment around the world
  • Targeted support needed to meet Sustainable Development Goals

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Indigenous people face a disproportionate struggle to access healthcare and education in both rich and poor countries, a paper in The Lancet warns.

The study, which evaluated more than half of the world’s indigenous communities, found they scored lower across the board than non-indigenous people on access to basic services.

This reduces their life expectancy and educational attainment, and increases child malnutrition and infant and maternal deaths, says lead author Ian Anderson, a researcher of indigenous education at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

In Colombia, for example, nearly 240 of every 100,000 indigenous women will die as a result of childbirth, while this only happens to 66 in 100,000 non-indigenous women, the study says.

And in India, where around eight per cent of the population are from indigenous communities, more than half of indigenous children are malnourished, while the problem affects around 40 per cent of non-indigenous children.

“Indigenous people need specialists able to speak their own language in health centres where their ancestral knowledge can also be incorporated.”

Leonor Pocaterra, Central University of Venezuela 

The researchers found that these gaps are the same in wealthy countries. “Poor, rich — they all have them,” says Anderson.

A lack of access to education and healthcare harm indigenous people throughout their lives, the study says. Most indigenous groups studied had significantly lower incomes than non-indigenous people in the same country, perpetuating a cycle of ill health and limited education.

Leonor Pocaterra, an epidemiologist at the Central University of Venezuela, says the study highlights the lack of specially designed services for indigenous people.

Pocaterra, who has worked with indigenous communities in Venezuela for 20 years, says that healthcare and education providers are often not equipped to acknowledge and incorporate indigenous people’s needs.

“Indigenous people need specialists able to speak their own language in health centres where their ancestral knowledge can also be incorporated,” she says.

For the 20 April Lancet study, the researchers obtained data on the conditions of 153 million people belonging to 28 indigenous groups in 23 countries, including developed countries such as Australia and Canada.

The researchers say the UN and national governments must develop more targeted health and education initiatives among indigenous communities if they want to meet the Sustainable Development Goals of ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

“This report should be a wake-up call for the governments around the world,” says Anderson. “A good start would be assisting poorer countries into developing data acquisition systems, so we can know where the bigger issues are.”