Empowerment of Indigenous Women

    By Jane McCall Politi, PhD, MSW

    The CSW 61 emerging issue/focus area was empowerment of indigenous women. I attended a parallel event "Retos y Logros para el Empoderamiento de las Mujeres, las Jovenas, y Ninas Indigenas."

    Representatives from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cameroon, The Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas (ECMIA), and Colombia described the issues particular to their countries and how young people are organizing to change laws and behavior.

    Most indigenous women, youth and girls, experience forms of domestic and sexual violence, including incest. They are often trafficked. Some live in countries experiencing years of armed conflict and forced displacement. Liberty and autonomy are not permitted in patriarchal societies. Structural violence abounds with poor or no health care, poor schools, criminal violence, no functioning justice system, lack of programs for sexual and reproductive health, no jobs, and gender inequality. Those in remote communities have no phones, roads and may be 7 hours away by boat from the mainland or a village.

    Through networks of indigenous women, youth groups meet periodically to discuss the violations of women’s and girl’s rights to education, health care, well-being, the need for programs for adolescents and disaggregated data to inform policy and programming for indigenous youth.

    Peer to peer groups have been very successful. Trained peer educators work with youth in their communities to teach them about their cultural identity, how to advocate for themselves, and how to gain access to the international arena. They raise awareness about human rights violations, and learn how to combat violence. All indigenous women want to eradicate violence. They need to speak with a united voice.

    Family Care International and other grassroots organizations work with ECMIA to provide workshops on priorities for youth, strategies for change, and train girls to be leaders on a Youth Commission that has been operative in the Continental Network (Canada, Mexico, Panama, and Argentina) since 2004. The Youth Commission meets every 4 years. One task of the Commission is to identify the drivers of migration. Many youth are trafficked or involved in contraband. There are no extended family networks in the cities. This is of great concern. Programs need to be implemented to provide economic opportunities so that the young people will return to their communities and care for their land – Mother Earth. When member organizations of the Network come together, they have a stronger voice at the UN to explain the particular needs of indigenous women and girls.

    In Cameroon, where girls and women have little or no access to education, no right to own and inherit land, no legal protection, and no access to information, grassroots groups are working to empower indigenous youth by encouraging them to stay in school rather than marry at 15, and teaching them skills, including technology.

    Young indigenous women are extraordinarily powerful advocates for respect of human rights for their mothers, themselves, their children, all girls and all women. Many have personal and community experiences that they can use to ground their arguments. Youth are articulating their own strategies and plans to contest the UN 2030 Agenda for deciding what is good for the well-being and rights of indigenous women without listening to the women themselves. The UN has it wrong. It is time to “say it as it is.”

    According to one spokesperson, the priority for SDG #5 gender equality should be equality among women – before considering men in the equation.

    Indigenous women need land and natural resources. Their spiritual calling and lifestyle rooted in moral values and principles needs to be recognized above all. The source of economic empowerment and care for their existence is Mother Earth. If that is lost, the women don’t know where to collect water and greens and where to hunt. They feel spiritually hurt. A panelist cited a little girl who noted that if there is no land, there is no corn to eat. Economic empowerment is not possible when the right to own land is taken away from youth and women. The effects of climate-induced displacement are felt strongly by women who cannot inherit or own land.

    Indigenous women have the right to live a life free from violence and discrimination based on traditional indigenous law and according to the principles of territory, autonomy, and culture.




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