Worlds of Education

Photo: Fred Dabu / Flickr
Photo: Fred Dabu / Flickr

#OffTrack #2: In the Philippines, Schools Serving Indigenous Communities Are Under Attack.

published 11 July 2019 updated 14 July 2019

Today, the United Nations High-Level Political Forum will focus on reviewing Sustainable Development Goal 10 on reducing inequalities and its interrelations with other goals. We are far off track to achieve equitable access to education and equitable educational opportunities for all. In fact, in some countries, governments are introducing policies that are contributing to worsening educational inequalities. This blog illustrates how the rights of indigenous students to relevant, quality education are being violated the Philippines due to government attacks on indigenous schools, teachers, students and community leaders in the Mindanao region. It explains how education unions are taking action to defend these rights and the achievement of SDGs 4 and 5.

On the 15th July, the Philippines will be presenting a Voluntary National Review (VNR) of its progress towards achieving the SDGs. However, this review is unlikely to critically assess the government’s numerous policies that actively undermine progress towards the SDGs. At this very moment in the Philippines, trade union rights are being violated and education union leaders threatened for speaking out.


In the Philippines, not only is the government neglecting its responsibility to fulfil every child’s right to education, but it is also violating human rights. Since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, rights violations of indigenous teachers and students in Mindanao have intensified, rendering progress toward ensuring that all students are safe at school (Target 4.a) and that indigenous students have equitable access to quality education (Target 4.5) impossible.

Schools in Mindanao have long suffered from neglect and lack of funding from the government due to their geographical isolation. However, even with limited resources, Lumad schools strive to provide free, quality education and to offer a curriculum tailored to the needs of their indigenous students. The curriculum aims to keep indigenous culture and history alive and to be relevant and responsive to the needs of the student population, ensuring that indigenous students receive a quality education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes in line with SDG Target 4.1.

Atrocities and attacks

For years, schools in Mindanao have been subjected to attacks, harassment and intimidation by both military and paramilitary forces. The occupation and destruction of school premises violates the right to education of thousands of Lumad children.

The government itself has incited attacks in Mindanao, labelling Lumad educators as communists and terrorists and making references to “counter-insurgency operations”. On 24 July 2017, President Duterte publicly called for airstrikes against Lumad schools “who teach children to rebel against the government” [1]. Since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, campaigners report that there have been at least 535 attacks against Lumad schools [2].

Three Lumad activists were killed in 2017: Emelito Rotimas, killed on 6 February, and Leonila Tapsadan and Ramon Dagaas Pesadilla, killed on 2 March. Human rights activists have also been harassed. On 28 November 2018, a solidarity mission of over 70 teachers, students, human rights defenders and volunteers, including a member of the Filipino House of Representatives, France Castro, were attacked by a paramilitary group whilst trying to provide support to Lumad school communities. Rather than being helped by the police, the group were arbitrarily detained. According to campaigners, trumped-up illegal arrests and abductions have become an emerging trend in the militarisation of Mindanao’s schools.

According to Lumad communities, attacks on schools and harassment of the Lumad population have worsened since Mindanao was placed under martial law on 23 May 2017. Martial law has been extended multiple times, and it is approved until the end of 2019.

Defending the right to education

The Alliance for Concerned Teachers, an education union representing educators from primary, secondary and tertiary levels, is a member of the Save our Schools network, which campaigns to raise awareness of and stop the militarisation of Lumad communities.

In an effort to enable Lumad students to have access to quality education despite intimidation and the closing down of their schools, ACT has supported the development and running of a Bakwit(evacuee school) for 75 students at the University of the Philippines in Manila. These representatives from years 3–10 come from four different Lumad schools and are taught by 15 teachers from Mindanao, as well as numerous volunteer teachers from the University of the Philippines. ACT is involved in recruiting and coordinating the volunteers, for example by informing them that volunteering at the Bakwit school can be accredited as part of their teaching workload. Teachers have donated food and other resources to help the Bakwit school function.

The “evacuee” school aims to replicate the curriculum that indigenous students received at indigenous schools in Mindanao and includes both “core” subjects and subjects related to the indigenous culture. On 29 March 2019, a “moving-up ceremony” was held, showing that the students were able to complete the standard curriculum requirements for the year.

Educators call for urgent action

The Philippines is submitting a Voluntary National Review this year, but this report is highly unlikely to recognise the militarisation of schools in Mindanao.

Educators and students from Mindanao want to go home and continue to teach and learn in safety and without harassment. Currently, however, students say that they are still at risk from armed forces. According to ACT, new schools are being built in the area in which students are taught by the military, and “community members are obliged to transfer their children to these schools lest they be accused of rebellion”.

Educators from around the globe [3] have condemned the continued harassment of and attacks against students, teachers and human rights activists from the Lumad indigenous communities, and they call on the government of the Philippines to end martial law and ensure that the right to quality education for all indigenous students is fulfilled. EI calls on the Philippines to endorse the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict, an intergovernmental instrument to protect students, teachers, schools and universities from attacks.

Note: In 2015, governments committed to achieve inclusive, equitable, quality education for all by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 4, SDG 4). Four years later, the world is severely off track to achieve the goal. This mini blog series illustrates some of the many obstacles to the achievement of SDG 4, from the point of view of teachers and education support personnel.

Download “Off Track: Educators Assess Progress Towards SDG 4” here and the summary in FRENCH, ENGLISH and SPANISH.

This blog article was produced thanks to the contribution of Sarah Raymundo (Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Philippines).

[1] See: http://nine.cnnphilippines.com/news/2017/07/25/Duterte-threatens-to-bomb-Lumad-schools.html

[2] See: http://davaotoday.com/main/human-rights/attacks-on-lumad-schools-continue/

[3] Education unions in solidarity include: the Australian Education Union/Australia; the Confederaçao Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação/Brazil; the Syndicat des enseignants bulgares/Bulgaria; the Asociación Nacional de Educadores/Costa Rica; the Fédération Formation et Enseignement Privés-Confédération française démocratique du travail/France; the Fédération Syndicale Professionnelle de l'Education/Guinea; the Japan Teachers’ Union/Japan; the Utdanningsforbundet/Norway; the Organización de Trabajadores de la Educación del Paraguay/Paraguay; the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and the National Union of Teachers/United Kingdom; and the National Education Association/United States of America.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.