Isirawa Language Revitalization Programme (ILRP)

Country Profile: Indonesia


249,866,000 (2013)

Official Language

Bahasa Indonesia

Other spoken languages

Javanese, Sundanese, Batak and Bugis

Poverty headcount ratio at 2 PPP$ a day (% of population)

43.3 (2013)

Access to Primary Education – Total Net Intake Rate (NIR)

96% (2006)

Total Youth Literacy Rate (15-24 years, 2015)
  • Men: 98.9%
  • Women: 99.1%
  • Total: 99%
Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 2015)
  • Male: 96.3%
  • Female: 91.5%
  • Total: 93.9%


Programme Overview

Programme TitleIsirawa Language Revitalization Programme (ILRP)
Implementing OrganizationSIL International-Indonesia
Language of InstructionIsirawa and Indonesian
FundingPapua Office of Education, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and churches
Date of Inception2000

Context and Background

Indonesia has made impressive strides in providing education opportunities to its citizens in recent years. In addition to enrolment rates of 96% in primary education, the total literacy rates for youths and adults are 99% and 90% respectively. The total percentage of illiterates among the adult population (aged 15 years and over) fell from 15% in 1990 to 10.2% in 2003 and 6.91% by the end of 2007. During the period 2000-2006, it was estimated that around 14.8 million adults were illiterate.

However, in a vast, transcontinental and multi-ethnic country that comprises 17,508 islands, there are inevitably ethnic, gender and regional disparities with regards to access to education. Thus, despite the visible progress made in literacy rates, the rate of illiteracy is substantially higher among ethnic minorities and indigenous people living in remote and economically marginalised areas. At the end of 2007, 23.41% of the three million inhabitants of Papua, the nation’s largest province, were estimated to be illiterate. Gender disparities in the province were similarly high, with illiteracy rates of 16.39% and 30.43% for men and women, respectively. Similarly, illiteracy rates in other marginalised regions such as the East Nusa Tenggara (11.25%), are above the national average.

The Isirawa people (indigenous Papuans living in the province of Papua) are among the most socially marginalised groups in Indonesia, with limited access to basic socio-economic services such as health and education. A majority of the Isirawa people depend on subsistence farming. Alarmingly, the Isirawa culture – in particular, their customs, language and production methods – is being eroded by urbanisation and the changing systems of livelihood. The major problem, from the perspective of traditional community leaders, is that the Isirawa are “a forgotten people” whose language and culture are not being retained by their youth. Similarly, they point to a lack of national interest in preserving the cultural identity of ethnic minorities such as the Isirawa. In light of this, SIL International-Indonesia initiated the Isirawa Language Revitalization Programme, a community-led and mother-tongue-based literacy programme designed to empower the Isirawa people to combat the erosion of their culture.

Isirawa Language Revitalization Programme (ILRP)

The ILRP stems from the desire of the Isirawa people and their leaders to revitalise and preserve their unique cultural identity, which is currently under threat from the influences of urbanisation and multiculturalism. The Isirawa traditional leaders are particularly interested in encouraging the preservation of their language and culture among the young, many of whom reportedly see little future in their Isirawa identity, and are therefore less inclined to participate in the development of their communities. The programme also emerged from the realisation that the Isirawa people would be unable to face the linguistic and social pressures of their urban-influenced context without a strong linguistic and cultural identity.

Although the Isirawa were generally motivated to participate in the programme because they wanted to preserve their cultural identity, many female participants opted to join in order to learn how to care for the health of their children and families. Furthermore, observations at the beginning of the project revealed that although some Isirawa people had already acquired basic reading and writing skills in Indonesian, they tended to view literacy as of little relevance to their daily lives and cultural identity. Hence, the ILRP was designed to empower the entire Isirawa community not only to revive and preserve their cultural heritage but also to become functionally literate in both Isirawa and Indonesian languages. This was intended to enable the Isirawa to use their multilingual skill effectively in order to promote community and national development. With strong support from community leaders, the project offered literacy skills training to the whole community, including mothers, who are among the most active participants in health education and literacy efforts in Isirawa village networks. Community libraries have been set up that include materials in both Isirawa and Indonesian. To date, the programme has operated in six of twelve Isirawa villages near the Papuan town of Sarmi.

The ILRP includes the following major activities and components:

Aims and Objectives

The ILRP aims to:

Thematic Focus Areas

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Various actors and stakeholders are involved in the implementation of the programme, including:

Teaching-Learning Methodologies

The programme integrates teaching approaches from the formal and non-formal education sectors. It has been particularly successful at facilitating learning through mentoring and strengthening social networks. Much learning in Isirawa culture takes place in a relational and participatory context outside of a formal classroom. One of the initial foci of this project was a village-based embroidery group attended by a group of mothers, which also indirectly provided health education and literacy training. Participants in these embroidery groups would then disseminate this information amongst their social networks in different villages.

Many Isirawa have already had previous exposure to Indonesian, but have found it difficult to learn the language well enough to engage in a classroom setting. Thus, although the programme is bilingual, much of its success stems from the extensive use of the Isirawa language.

In order to ensure the programme’s effectiveness and sustainability, a number of aids and methodologies are used in the teaching-learning process, including:

Programme Impact and Challenges

30 participants attended a series of basic health workshops on topics such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. Over 50 people have attended transitional literacy sessions facilitated by Isirawa tutors. Six village libraries have been established and equipped with books and other educational materials in an effort to promote lifelong learning.

The main impact has been a change in attitude on the part of the Isirawa people, including traditional leaders and youth. They now accept that there is a way to participate in national activities without losing their unique linguistic and cultural identity. One programme participant said, "We heard about this disease called AIDS from an outsider when we were in Jayapura, but only believe it now because we have heard it from someone we know and trust."

Lessons Learned

It was observed that literacy projects are more effective when they are based on communal perceptions of culture and cultural preservation. In light of this, communal dialogues are central to both literacy learning and cultural propagation. In addition, revitalising the linguistic and cultural identity of the Isirawa people, as well as fostering community engagement in the process, has actually encouraged the Isirawa to engage constructively with the outside world. For example, as a result of the communities’ experiences of working together on the literacy committee and transition workshops, community leaders spearheaded the development of an airstrip, providing a much-needed alternative form of transport to the Isirawa area. They have also succeeded in getting an Isirawa person elected to political office at the regency level of local government.



John Custer
SIL International, Indonesia Branch
PO Box 1561
JKS- Jakarta 12015
Tel: +62 21 765 8554
Email: john_custer (at)

Last update: 14 May 2009