Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PARAGUAY: University Opens Doors to Native Students

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Jun 18 2009 (IPS) - Video camera in hand, Isidro Romero is getting ready for another day of classes in the Paraguayan capital. He is studying Communications as part of a programme aimed at breaking down the barriers that have blocked access to university level studies by the country’s small indigenous minority.

As a result of an agreement signed by the public National University of Asunción (UNA) and the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute (INDI), the university has opened its doors to aboriginal peoples, starting with Romero, a Guaraní Indian, and nine other members of different native groups.

“This is just the start of a new openness, because a real opening up will require a long process of dismantling an internal culture in the public university, with respect to inter-ethnic relations,” Miguel López, the coordinator of Communications studies at the Faculty of Philosophy, told IPS.

The Faculty of Philosophy was the first to implement the programme this year, accepting two native students in five of its six study areas: Social Work, Communications, History, Educational Sciences and Psychology.

“There was no way I could possibly afford to study for a professional career, which I have wanted to do for a long time. I finally have the chance,” Romero, 40, who is now a first year Communications student, told IPS.

The indigenous students did not have to take the entrance exam, one of the requirements for acceptance to the public university in Paraguay, but they did have to take the entrance exam preparation courses.

“The Faculty of Philosophy has required the indigenous students to take the exam prep courses, to bring them up to par in terms of educational preparation. We know that the quality of education in rural and indigenous schools is really shaky,” said López.

The overall illiteracy rate in this landlocked South American country of 6.7 million people stands at five percent, but climbs to 39 percent among the country’s indigenous minority, who number just over 108,000, or two percent of the population, according to a 2008 survey of indigenous households by the statistics and census office (DGEEC).

Besides tiny white, black and Asian minorities, the rest of the population of Paraguay is of mixed Spanish and Guaraní descent.

And although both Spanish and Guaraní are official languages and 90 percent of the population speaks Guaraní (75 percent also speaks Spanish), indigenous people suffer inequality in every area: health, education, employment and access to basic services like running water and electricity. Six out of 10 indigenous people in Paraguay live in poverty.

Although most indigenous people in Paraguay are Guaraní, the native population consists of 17 different ethnic groups, belonging to five linguistic families: Guaraní, Maskoy, Mataco Mataguayo, Zamuco and Guaikuru.

While Paraguayans over the age of 15 have an average of eight years formal schooling, among indigenous people the average is just three years. And at the tertiary level of education, there simply are no statistics on Amerindians.

All registration, library and exam fees have also been waived for the native students accepted by the Faculty of Philosophy.

However, each one of them is responsible for their own board and lodging in Asunción, which is far away from their home villages.

“The main obstacle is financial,” Lorenza Benítez, in charge of public policies in the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples (CONAPI), told IPS. “Native communities are far from the towns and cities where tertiary-level institutions are located. So, in order for them to have access to higher education, they need board and lodging and educational opportunities closer to home.”

Under the UNA/INDI agreement signed in November, the indigenous institute was to cover the living expenses of the Amerindian students studying in the capital. But problems in the administration of the institute, which answers to the central government, made that impossible.

Benítez said the government of centre-left President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who took office in August 2008, has designed praiseworthy projects involving higher education, to be carried out by INDI. She added, however, that “There was talk about granting scholarships to indigenous students, for example, but it has remained just ink on paper.”

It is CONAPI that covers the expenses of young indigenous people studying to become teachers, because the teaching institutes, which are tertiary level, are located near their communities.

Authorities in the Faculty of Philosophy were prompted to open up spaces for indigenous students when they heard that there were Amerindian high school graduates studying to become teachers.

“We don’t know if this will continue, but at least we have laid the foundations. Whether or not the programme evolves will depend on INDI,” said López.

Because of the discrimination faced by indigenous people in Paraguay, one of the challenges undertaken by the programme is to provide the students with special support to help them cope with any prejudice they may face or the cultural clashes they may experience.

But Romero says he has had no problems in terms of the treatment received from his professors or fellow students. In fact, he and his classmates are organising a visit to his home village, to promote cultural exchange.

Romero says he chose Communications because he has taken part in training workshops on filmmaking.

“Indigenous people from Bolivia came and gave audiovisual workshops, and later I did an internship at a filmmaking institute in Bolivia,” says Romero, who was able to travel to the neighbouring country thanks to support from the Federation of Associations of Indigenous Communities, to which he belongs.

He turns his camera back on again, and as he films, he says proudly, “I have a project: a documentary on my time at the university.”

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