Indigenous women around the world suffer from various forms of violence, from child marriage and domestic violence to loss of the land that sustains them and their families, according to participants at the World Conference of Indigenous Women held October 28 to 30 in Lima, Peru.
“We speak with the same voice. We have the same problems across the world,” said Agnes Leina, executive director of Il'laramatak Community Concerns, which works to empower girls and women in traditional herder communities in Kenya.
As corporations move in to build roads, open mines and obtain rights to water sources, especially in northern Kenya, “We are being pushed from our land, and the people most affected are the women and children,” she told reporters on the last day of the conference.
Indigenous women also have less access to health care and education, she said. Women often must walk miles to the nearest health center. Those who are seriously ill may die along the way, and pregnant women sometimes give birth before they reach a health-care facility, she said.
Women in those communities “are largely illiterate, so the cycle of poverty goes round and round,” she said.
In Latin America, which is home to more than 23 million indigenous women of more than 670 peoples, maternal mortality and teenage pregnancy rates are higher among indigenous than non-indigenous women, according to a new study published by the U.N. Economic Council for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The region has made some progress in education, with more indigenous girls completing primary school, but far fewer girls than boys continue to high school or beyond, said Fabiana del Popolo of ECLAC.
“We indigenous women want to stop being invisible and become visible,” said Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechua woman from Peru who heads Chirapaq, an indigenous advocacy organization that helped organize the Lima event. Using data from national censuses, as the Latin America study did, women can propose policy changes to benefit themselves and their families, she said.
Some women seek change within their own communities. Elsa Cárdenas, a Quechua woman from the southern Peruvian highlands, called for a change in her community’s rules that would give women voice and vote in assemblies, which are currently open only to men, single women and widows.
In other cases, problems must be tackled on a global scale.
Canada’s northernmost reaches are suffering “extreme impacts” from global climate change, said Ruth Massie, grand chief of the Council of First Yukon Nations.
“We see the effects in our animals, birds and plants,” she said. “Migration routes of our animals have changed, our birds are fewer, our plants are affected by pollutants in the water, which we never had before.”
Those changes add to the toll on health, as people’s diets shift more toward processed foods, she said.
Despite the shared problems, there are hopeful signs in some countries. Myrna Cunningham, of the Center for Autonomy and Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) in Nicaragua, said that 30 percent of her country’s land is now recognized as indigenous territory, although some communities still struggle to gain control over their territory.
That, she said, is a sign that “things can change, and women have a key role to play in that change.”
At the event, which was designed as a lead-up to the 2014 U.N. World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, director of Tebtebba, an indigenous policy and education organization in the Philippines, urged a greater decision-making role for indigenous women.
“We are the ones who carry the burdens of making our families survive and sustaining the ecosystem,” she said. “Our message to the United Nations, governments and corporations is that they should work with us and not against us, because we have solutions to many of the environmental, social, economic and cultural crises that (the world faces) today.”