The Indigenous World 2024: Defending the Rights of Indigenous Women

The strategy adopted by the Indigenous women's movement to confront the structural inequalities they face in all countries of the world has been to walk together, collectively influencing strategic spaces from the local to the global level, both socially and politically. Practically, this means ensuring a presence in the community assemblies on their territories, reaching out to national spaces with proposals for governments and contributing to international spaces such as the UN.

The adoption of General Recommendation 39 on the rights of Indigenous women and girls,[1] under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), represents a milestone in discrimination and violence against them. Its main objective is to provide guidance to States Parties on relevant legislative, policy and other measures in order to ensure compliance with their obligations in relation to the rights of Indigenous women and girls under the principles set out in the CEDAW.

In this General Recommendation, the CEDAW (Committee) identifies and addresses the different forms of intersectional discrimination faced by Indigenous women and girls, as well as their key role as leaders, knowledge bearers and transmitters of culture within their villages, communities, families and society.

Entire generations of Indigenous women have been actively involved, from the local to the global. Undoubtedly, the coordinated work that Indigenous women carry out at the local, regional, national and international levels will be fundamental to ensuring progress in the implementation of General Recommendation 39, which is a bastion of promoting the individual and collective rights of the world's Indigenous women.


Indigenous women open a strategic dialogue at CSW67 with key stakeholders, UN mechanisms and the donor community for the effective implementation of CEDAW’s GR39 on the rights of Indigenous women and girls

At the 67th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67), Indigenous women emphasized the importance of CEDAW General Recommendation 39 (GR39) and its relevance to their empowerment. Indigenous women highlighted the need to implement concrete measures to guarantee the recognition and protection of their rights to land, territories and natural resources, as established in GR39.

During the session, a strategic dialogue was held between the International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI) and the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch/Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (IPBD/SPFII).[2] The main objective of this dialogue was to strengthen the Indigenous women's movement and establish a global advocacy agenda to ensure the implementation of CEDAW GR39, which protects the individual and collective rights of Indigenous women and girls.

The event was attended by Indigenous leaders from different regions, government delegations and donors, who discussed the progress and challenges in implementing GR39.

At this event and throughout the session, the importance of actively involving Indigenous women in decision-making and in the formulation of policies relating to sustainable natural resource management was highlighted. Emphasis was placed on the need to respect and promote the principle of Indigenous communities’ free, prior and informed consent in all initiatives affecting their lands and territories.

In addition, during the session, the Indigenous women shared examples of good practice in and successful experiences of protecting the environment and promoting sustainability. These exemplary cases underscored the importance of recognizing and valuing Indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge of biodiversity conservation and sustainable natural resource management.

In summary, the 2023 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women provided an important platform for discussing and promoting the implementation of CEDAW General Recommendation 39, recognizing the central role of Indigenous women in protecting Mother Earth and promoting their empowerment at all levels.

CEDAW’s General Recommendation 39

CEDAW's GR39 recognizes the importance of ensuring that Indigenous women have access to and control over their lands, territories and natural resources. This recommendation arose in response to the multiple forms of discrimination and violence they face in relation to their individual and collective rights, which are moreover amplified by their gender and by their Indigenous status. GR39 urges States Parties to take measures to ensure:

  • Legal recognition and guaranteed access to land: States must recognize and protect Indigenous women's rights to land, territories and natural resources, and guarantee their participation in decision-making over these resources.
  • Non-discrimination and empowerment: States must prevent and eliminate gender and ethnic discrimination against Indigenous women, promoting their empowerment and effective participation in land-related issues.
  • Consultation and free, prior and informed consent: States must consult and obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous women before undertaking projects that affect their lands, territories and resources.

Contributions of Indigenous women to protecting the land

Indigenous women play a fundamental role in protecting and conserving the land and the environment. According to ILO data, there are currently 476.6 million Indigenous people, accounting for 6.2% of the global population. They have a presence in 90 countries where they safeguard 5,000 cultures.[3] Indigenous Peoples’ cultures are intimately related to the environment because it is from Mother Earth that they acquire what they need to live in harmony with all beings in the surrounding environment; it is for this reason that they are considered one of the main actors in conserving the planet's biodiversity.

It is through language that Indigenous Peoples interrelate with all their traditions, including respect for the land and knowledge of its use; knowledge of the different seasons; and knowledge of medicine, food, crafts and dance. Judy Winter, an Indigenous activist from the Wapichan territory in southern Guyana, is just 18 years of age and she is travelling the towns and villages of her region in search of elders and “knowledge holders” willing to share what they know with the youth of their communities.

For Indigenous Peoples, and particularly Indigenous women, their traditional knowledge of sustainable natural resource management, biodiversity and environmentally-friendly agricultural practice is invaluable. In addition, their deep spiritual connection to the earth motivates them to actively and committedly care for it.

The key contributions of Indigenous women include:

  • Biodiversity conservation: Indigenous women are the custodians of seeds and traditional agricultural practices that contribute to the genetic diversity of crops and the conservation of native species.
  • Environmental awareness: Indigenous women's knowledge of natural cycles and the relationship between humans and nature fosters conservation and sustainable practices.
  • Natural resource management: Indigenous women are at the forefront of the community’s management of resources such as forests, rivers and pastures, promoting their responsible use and preventing their destructive exploitation.

Indigenous women united in the face of climate change

Indigenous women from the Ololunga community in Kenya are challenging the deforestation that is affecting their land through the Paran Women's collective. In 2005, Indigenous activist Naiyan Kiplagat began meeting with several Indigenous women leaders in her community to promote a series of productive activities that would enable them to generate an income, gain empowerment and, at the same time, contribute to saving their forests and water sources.

The women of the Paran collective have established nurseries in which they cultivate seeds of trees native to the forest that has been felled. They also grow legumes and vegetables, which they sell together with the trees ready for reforestation.

We have planted trees around our homes, in schools and everywhere we can. So far we have rehabilitated more than 150,000 hectares. The change has been magnificent, there are already women who have access to clean water, which has changed the lives of many people, as contaminated sources cause many diseases, especially among the children in our communities, says Naiyan.

Currently, together with the Paran women, Naiyan is seeking funding to be able to spread her message of caring for the forest to further regions of Kenya that are likely to be severely affected by climate change and the other negative effects of natural resource exploitation.

Leadership that sows change

In 2018, a group of women from eight provinces in Cambodia came together to address their communities’ land dispossession. Companies are now occupying the territory that their forefathers and their forefathers’ grandparents inhabited for generations, with their bamboo houses in the middle of the trees, cultivating the land on the banks of the great rivers and caring for Mother Earth. This has taken place without their consent, with dams being built that have flooded their homes and crops, their forest being destroyed, and the land being drilled to extract precious minerals that pollute their soil and water. Women have been severely affected as they are responsible for feeding their families.

In this situation, the Indigenous communities have felt totally defenceless against the invasive force of the companies, which have entered with State support. In 2016, several Indigenous women attended a workshop on rights. They learned that if they could obtain the title to their land, they would be able to claim their rights from the State and stop the companies. And so they formed the Cambodian Indigenous Women's Working Group (CIWWG).

Sreymom Choeun, a member of this collective, commenced the process of gaining title to the communal lands of her ancestors and, with other women, studied the laws of Cambodia that recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their land. They thus came to understand that the law recognizes five uses of the land: for habitation, for cultivation, for future generations, for ancestors and the sacred forest land for spiritual ceremonies. They also learned that the titling process involves three applications to three different ministries through a complex system of bureaucracy. This is how, through the CIWWG, they were able to obtain the land titles they now possess.

Guaraní leadership and resilience

Angelina Barrientos is the founder of the Guaraní Indigenous Women’s Organization. Angelina has travelled across the Chaco region of Paraguay meeting with colleagues from various Indigenous women’s organizations.

Drought has been spreading through the Paraguayan Chaco due to the climate crisis that is affecting the region. According to various sources, rainfall has declined significantly in recent decades, resulting in a serious scarcity of water in the Indigenous communities. In response to this situation, Angelina has focused her work on measures to mitigate the effects of the drought, such as installing pipes, constructing a water cistern[4] and supplying water to the communities. Despite the benefits of this, some of her male colleagues objected but Angelina responded, “We're all in this together, we're not doing it alone. We all have to work side by side.”

There is an interconnection between local and global actions, and this is evident in the work of Angelina and her organization fighting climate change and its adaptation. It is important for Indigenous women and organizations to recognize the challenges they are facing so that they can build the skills that will enable them to connect on an international level, albeit with the end result of bringing about local change in their own communities.

The International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI)[5] has acted as a bridge to mobilize and facilitate resources for initiatives led by and for Indigenous women at all levels. Collectively, they are seeking “el buen vivir” [good living] for 238.4 million Indigenous women, 6.2% of the world's female population. In 2023, under the leadership of FIMI, Indigenous women began to coordinate with the aim of implementing CEDAW GR39.

Their strategy is to walk together for change that will take from the local to the global: regional and global dialogues in UN bodies and mechanisms, such as the CSW,[6] in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues[7], with CEDAW,[8] and at the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change,[9] with the aim of getting governments to promote the good practices of Indigenous women.

Promoting good practices

It is imperative that governments take measures to promote the good practices of Indigenous women in protecting land and territories. Some key reasons include:

  • Gender and ethnic justice: guaranteeing their right to land is a step towards gender equality and the recognition of our individual and collective rights.
  • Environmental sustainability: their sustainable practices contribute to the conservation of natural resources and the mitigation of climate change.
  • Strengthening Indigenous communities: their protection of Mother Earth strengthens communities as a whole, improving resilience and well-being.
  • Fulfilment of international obligations: States that have ratified the CEDAW have a responsibility to implement GR39, to demonstrate accountability and comply with international human rights standards.

Conclusion 

CEDAW GR39 recognizes the importance of Indigenous women's right to land, territories and resources and their vital contribution to protecting Mother Earth. Governments must take concrete actions, such as the creation of public policies, and allocate budgets and specific programmes to promote our good practices in sustainable land and resource management.

This will not only benefit Indigenous women and their communities but also contribute to a more just and sustainable future for humanity.

 

 

The International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI) is a global network that brings together Indigenous women from seven socio-cultural regions. FIMI is focused on advocacy, capacity building, economic empowerment and leadership development.

 

This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here

 

Notes and references

[1] UNO. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. “CEDAW General Recommendation 39 on the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls.” docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=6QkG1d%2FPPRiCAqhKb7yhsldCrOlUTvLRFDjh6%2Fx1pWBBKAIjVJg1BZO3p1Tqs6E6C4aQNZvrjofIcIHlQyv44wLU8iFD2a4Pc86YrkQJga2YvGHgKaX3CExi4dLluNDg

[2] International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI). “Indigenous Women open a strategic dialogue at CSW67 between key stakeholders, United Nations mechanisms and the donor community for the effective implementation of CEDAW’s GR39”. 9 May 2023. https://cedaw.fimi-iiwf.org/en/2023/05/23/indigenous-women-open-a-strategic-dialogue-at-csw67-between-key-stakeholders-united-nations-mechanisms-and-the-donor-community-for-the-effective-implementation-of-cedaws-gr39/

[3] UNO. “Fight racism. Indigenous Peoples”. https://www.un.org/en/fight-racism/vulnerable-groups/indigenous-peoples

[4] The aljibe is a cistern for storing rainwater, usually drinking water.

[5] International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI). https://fimi-iiwf.org/

[6] UN Women. Commission on the Status of Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/csw

[7] UNO. Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Division for Social Inclusion. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. https://social.desa.un.org/issues/indigenous-peoples/unpfii

[8] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. https://www.ohchr.org/en/treaty-bodies/cedaw

[9] UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Conference of the Parties (COP). https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop

Tags: Land rights, Women, Global governance, Climate, Human rights, International Processes

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