Photo: A H/mong hill tribe woman in a village of Sin Chai, Sapa, Viet Nam. Women’s labour accounts for the two-thirds of subsistence agriculture in developing countries, yet they often have no rights over the land. Credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park - Photo: 2017

Indigenous Women Still Face Huge Rights Challenges

By Phil Harris

ROME (IDN) – Almost ten years have come and gone since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007, but indigenous people continue to face discrimination, marginalisation and major challenges in enjoying their basic rights.

“The Declaration, which took more than twenty years to negotiate, stands today as a beacon of progress, a framework for reconciliation and a benchmark of rights,” according to a joint statement on the occasion of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9 issued by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“But a decade on, we need to acknowledge the vast challenges that remain. In too many cases, indigenous peoples are now facing even greater struggles and rights violations than they did ten years ago,” they added.

Although some countries have taken constitutional and legislative measures to recognise their rights and identities, exclusion, marginalisation and violence continue to be widespread.

Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) said that as “custodians and practitioners” of unique cultures and relationships with the natural environment, indigenous peoples embody a wide range of linguistic and cultural diversity at the heart of our shared humanity.

“Protecting their rights and dignity is protecting everyone’s rights and respecting humanity’s soul, past and future,” she said, noting that UNESCO’s latest Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report provides concrete guidance and policy advice for the advancement of indigenous peoples’ rights.

In a statement, the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues (IASG) said that the rights contained in the Declaration constitute the “minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.”

These rights, it noted, include the right to self-determination, and, in exercising this right, the right to autonomy and self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs; the right to development; the right to health; the right to participate in decision-making and to be consulted regarding legislative and administrative measures that may affect indigenous peoples directly; the right to lands, territories and resources; the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, traditional systems of justice and related intellectual property; the right to live in freedom, peace and security; and the right to protection from violence.

“Importantly,” added the IASG statement, “several of the Declaration’s provisions refer to indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent.”

However, it recognised that “while indigenous peoples have made significant advancements in advocating for their rights in international and regional fora, implementation of the Declaration is impeded by persisting vulnerability and exclusion, particularly among indigenous women, children, youth and persons with disabilities.”

Indeed, the plight of women is one of the main areas in which much remains to be achieved in terms of rights.

Speaking to UN Women during the 16th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (April 24-May 5), Tauli-Corpuz, who is also a former Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, noted that while indigenous women have mobilised themselves at national, local, regional and international levels, glaring gaps remain in terms of resources allocated for their participation, and in terms of their access to adequate sexual and reproductive health services.”

In addition, “the majority of indigenous peoples live in remote areas, and when there are cut backs on women’s rights, even lesser funds or services trickle down to these areas.”

According to Tauli-Corpuz, “indigenous women and girls are disproportionately impacted by violence, including trafficking …. (and this is not a problem only in the poorer countries; it is happening even in richer countries like the United States of America.

“During my visits to the USA as the Special Rapporteur, I heard of many cases of trafficking and violence against women around oil exploration and fracking areas. When I was in Australia, I visited detention centres for women and found that majority of the incarcerated were aboriginal women.”

Stressing the importance of the role played by indigenous women in local economic and social systems, Tauli-Corpuz also identified how climate change is negatively affecting indigenous women in particular.

“Many indigenous women are farmers; they work the land and rely on the land for food security.  Their ability to produce food and income for their families has been severely impacted by the intense climate variability that we see now.”

Furthermore, “indigenous women live in some of the most fragile ecosystems – whether they are in the highlands or the arctic or the low-lying islands – and these areas are dramatically impacted by climate change. As disasters are on the rise, so is the care burden of indigenous women.”

According to Tauli-Corpuz, “indigenous women possess intimate knowledge about their lands and are uniquely capable of mitigating climate change … Many Indigenous women are more familiar with the lay of the land since they are working on the land every day. They often know where the safe zones may be, when disaster strikes.

Conversely, the levels and frequency of disasters these days are unprecedented, and when indigenous women are not involved in disaster risk reduction, they may be at a disadvantage. When disaster strikes, they are the ones in charge of getting the children, the elderly and the sick to safety.”

The Special Rapporteur stressed the importance of engaging women in both risk reduction and in disaster response, and soliciting their views about how to mobilise communities.

“We have partners who have worked with the Maasai women in Kenya who used to make and sell charcoal, but now they are earning a better livelihood using their traditional bead-making skills, and reducing the cutting of trees to produce charcoal,” she noted. “Similarly, in Peru, Amazonian women have decided to develop and sell natural dyes to reduce the pressure on the forest for their livelihood.”

Referring in particular to the Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous People], Tauli-Corpuz stressed that its effective implementation not only means protecting the rights of indigenous women, but enabling them to contribute towards the solutions of some of our present-day challenges.

“Most governments are still prioritising large-scale development and infrastructure that bring more revenue. But the dominant economic paradigms are at odds with the rights of indigenous peoples.

“We need to enact policies that ensure equal involvement of indigenous women in climate action. Any climate change adaptation and mitigation discussion must involve indigenous women, because they have different perspectives than men, on critical issues, ranging from food security and safe water access to renewable energy and disaster relief.”

While commending the tenth anniversary of the Declaration, along with its own Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention, 1989 (No. 169), as instruments guiding public policy and empowering “indigenous communities to pursue their own development priorities,” the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also called on the international community to renew its commitment to promote the empowerment and voice of indigenous women, stressing that the current situation is far from acceptable.

“Indigenous peoples constitute a disproportionate 15 percent of the world’s poor whereas they are an estimated five percent of the world’s population. Indigenous women are commonly the poorest of the poor, discriminated against because they are indigenous and because they are women,” said the ILO, pointing out that their marginalisation and social exclusion must be addressed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN 2030 Agenda. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 August 2017]

Photo: A H/mong hill tribe woman in a village of Sin Chai, Sapa, Viet Nam. Women’s labour accounts for the two-thirds of subsistence agriculture in developing countries, yet they often have no rights over the land. Credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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