26 September, 2003

Indigenous Women Challenging the Global Agenda

Indigenous Women Challenging the Global Agenda
by Maya Dollarhide, Sushma Joshi, Voices Unabridged, 10/26/03

From the High Sierra of the Andes to the Sami territories of Scandinavia, indigenous women, a silent minority in international affairs, are just beginning to find their voices and discover their rightful place in the global community.

This past May hundreds of indigenous women, some from the most remote and desolate regions of the world, traveled to the United Nations in New York City. They came armed with an ambitious agenda and a vast array of topics to discuss at the second session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Whether dressed in business attire or traditional clothing made of bright, hand-woven fabrics and intricately beaded shawls, these women proudly illustrated their nations´ diversity while banding together to form a collective front of unified tribes.

High on their agenda was the quest for women’s rights, an issue that united them despite the striking differences in their cultural backgrounds. During two weeks of meetings, open debates, and private sessions, both indigenous men and women were heard by representatives of governments that frequently overlooked their needs and made them one of the world’s most threatened minority groups.

“This body is very new and its way of work is very new to the UN system, said Wilton Littlechild, a Cree Indian from Canada and a permanent Forum Member who founded The Indigenous Initiative for Peace with Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu-Tum. “We have seen a growing interest from nation states; we had over 30 states participating last time. This time we had over 70, and many of them expressed support for our works”.

Health: a Pressing Issue for Indigenous Women

Women and girls represent more than half of the estimated 300 to 500 million indigenous people in more than 70 countries worldwide. Threatened in terms of identity, they are also faced with inadequate pre and postnatal care, health education and treatment against sexually transmitted diseases.

Bblem Akouvi, from the African country of Togo, came to request technical assistance and funding for Togo’s rural indigenous women. “We hope that the UN will offer us assistance, especially in the rural areas. We need help from the governments and institutions,” said Akouvi. “There are many problems. For example, we have no way to get medicine or treatment from hospitals in the villages that are in rural areas. Also, the women have no health information and many of them have problems in pregnancy.” Thousands of miles away from Togo, women in the Quechua communities of Ecuador share the same hardship. Specifically, their maternal mortality rate of 250 deaths per 100,000 living births exceeds the national average of 170. Also, although Ecuador’s indigenous women have an average of 5.6 children as compared to 3 in the country’s coastal zones, one in every 10 infants does not live to see his or her first birthday.

Not surprisingly, the problems faced by rural women in Africa and Latin America are in many ways identical to those affecting indigenous women in some of the richest countries in the world. For example, according to a study by the Canadian government, 58% of the First Nations women who gave birth in 1999 were under 25 years old and the infant mortality rate of 8 deaths per 1,000 live births was 1.5 times higher than the Canadian national rate. Furthermore, twice as many First Nations births were classified with high birth weight, and the suicide rate for indigenous women between the ages of 14 to 25 was eight times the national.

In the United States, “one of the biggest health issues for Indian women is reproductive health and access to contraception and medicine, and hospitals,” said Charon Asetoyer, founder of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, in South Dakota. “Indian Health Services funding is getting cut back. Many women on reservations have to travel very far to get to a hospital or see a doctor.” Asetoyer was unable to attend the Forum this year, but has been actively involved with its development.

Indigenous women at the Forum agreed that their community overwhelming health problems needed to be recognized and addressed. Article 43 of the draft declaration of the rights of indigenous people echoes that sentiment, stating: “The rights recognized in this declaration apply equally to include indigenous men and women.” Unfortunately, however the draft has been sitting before the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva for nine years.

Many participants emphasized the need for swift passage of the declaration, before the Decade of the Indigenous People ends in 2004. “It is a pity that the draft declaration has been waiting for so long,” said Erica Daer, of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, during the open forum. “That is unacceptable from every point of view.” Explaining its position on the issue, the United States Mission to the United Nations gave the following statement to the press: "The U.S. supports a strong draft declaration that covers indigenous people throughout the world. This is a complicated matter as the situation for indigenous people varies from Asia to Africa to Latin America, Europe and the U.S. Generally the U.S. would like to see a declaration that clearly states that indigenous people should have control over their local affairs." U.S. representatives declined to comment further.

Indigenous Women Set Next Year’s Agenda

The second session may be over, but the battle for the rights of indigenous women is just beginning. Untiring lobbying efforts have paid off, and the third session of the Indigenous People’s Forum, scheduled for May 10 to 21, 2004, will be entitled “Indigenous Women.” Achieving this focus from a plethora of equally pressing problems that beset indigenous communities was not easy. "It was quite tough to get everybody to agree…In fact, there was quite a bit of opposition, and some of the young men are still not talking with me,” said Stella Taming, head of the Women's Caucus, once a loose coalition of ad-hoc members that has since transformed into a successful lobbying group. "We feel there is a discussion about women, but our voices are not listened to," she added, “Women's concerns tend to be different from those of men, who often focus only on self-determination and political sovereignty.”

The Women's Caucus also made recommendations to the Forum about steps that needed to be taken to promote women's rights and called for investigations on the use of discriminatory reproductive health policies against indigenous women. It demanded that States take responsibility for violence against their indigenous communities, address the historical trauma of colonization, and better allocate resources to help survivors of violence.

Establishing “Indigenous Women” as next year's theme was a major victory in an international forum where activists of all backgrounds were aggressively pushing their own agendas. It was also urgent since, as the first Indigenous Women’s Summit in the Americas stated in December 2002, “the gains in international instruments have not resulted in the improvement of the lives of indigenous women in their communities….”

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