Home » Uncategorized » ¿Qué pasó?: Why Guatemala’s Poorest Children Aren’t Finishing Primary School

¿Qué pasó?: Why Guatemala’s Poorest Children Aren’t Finishing Primary School

Photo by Alex Muff

As I walk down the familiar stone streets full of market vendors selling their fresh produce and handmade goods, a smile that I haven’t seen in a year shines from across the street. Maria, an 11 year old indigenous Maya girl living in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala, embraces me and greets me with the obligatory, “¿Como está?” I respond and ask her how school is going. “Alex, lo que pasa es que…” With these words I know what is coming. Maria is no longer attending school. She explains to me that she felt she wasn’t learning and didn’t feel supported by the teachers and staff at her school. Her family is also suffering financially, and therefore felt her time was better spent helping her mother sew and weave goods to sell at the market. 

Unfortunately, Maria’s story is not unique, especially among the indigenous population in Guatemala. While school completion rates, particularly in primary school, have increased in Guatemala, there is still a long way to go and socio-economic status still plays a large role in school completion. According to UNESCO, the primary school completion rate for Guatemala’s “richest” is 96%, while the completion rate for the “poorest” is 56%. 

Photo from UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report

While there is little detail given regarding these numbers such as what average income constitutes “richest” and “poorest” nor what ethnicities are present in these groups, based on countrywide statistics, it can be assumed that the majority of those that fall into the “poorest” category are part of the indigenous population. To this day, indigenous children in Guatemala face much more difficulty accessing and completing their education. 

According to a document laying out education goals and strategies published by Guatemala’s Ministry of Education, the main objective for this school year is education quality, equity and inclusion. However, within this document, there is no mention of expanding education access to reach the indigenous population. Instead, it addresses ways to improve education quality and ensure students are hitting specific learning objectives. While also important, the Ministry of Education appears to completely ignore two of their main goals – equity and inclusion. 

Regardless of their goal, further investment in students and education initiatives will be necessary to create any lasting change. However, over the past 5 years, Guatemala’s government budget being allocated to education has remained stagnant at between 2.8 and 2.96% of GDP. Despite the Ministry of Education’s call for improvement, the government budget does not reflect a commitment to education development within the country. 

Progress seemed to be initiated in 2015 when Guatemala, along with 192 other countries, agreed to work towards 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). SDG 4 calls to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” While the language from Guatemala’s Ministry of Education echoes this sentiment, there is little detail on what specific actions will be taken to advance education opportunities for Guatemala’s vulnerable populations, especially the indigenous Maya. 

With a history of indigenous discrimination and a 36 year civil war ending in 1996 that wiped out over 150,000 indigenous Maya Guatemalans, incredibly intentional steps and investments are needed to ensure education equity among Guatemala’s children. The government and organizations will need to work together and use a collective approach to create change. The Ministry of Education, while on the right track mentioning equity and inclusion, needs to ensure they are including accessibility for the indigenous population in their goals. The government needs to break out of its stagnant investment and increase its budget for education. Finally, the government, Ministry of Education and other organizations working towards education equality in Guatemala should use the SDG’s as a guideline to inform their work. 

Children like Maria should never have to make the choice between going to school and helping their family earn money. With a true commitment and intentional steps taken towards inclusive education, children like Maria will never have to make such a decision.



Equity. (2020). Global Education Monitoring Report. UNESCO. Retrieved from https://www.education-progress.org/en/articles/equity/

Guatemalan Ministry of Education’s Strategy to Improve Education. (n.d.). Guatemala City. Retrieved from http://www.mineduc.gob.gt/portal/documents/estrategias/Estrategia_de_calidad_a_medios.pdf

Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg4

Sustainable Development Goals Officially Adopted by 193 Countries. (9AD). Retrieved from http://www.un.org.cn/info/6/620.html

Timeline: Guatemala’s Brutal Civil War. (2011, March 7). Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/latin_america-jan-june11-timeline_03-07

UNESCO Institute for Statistics – Guatemala. Retrieved from http://uis.unesco.org/country/GT

The World Factbook: Guatemala. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_gt.html

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.