Sao Paulo, Brazil – Celia Xakriaba was 13 years old when she joined the fight for indigenous rights. Her indigenous Xakriaba community is one of the few who survived the advancement of colonisers and missionaries in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais during the 18th century.
Xakriaba, now 29, continues the fight for the rights of native people in Brazil and is one of the growing number of women who have taken the lead in the movement.
“The 21st century belongs to women and our voices are stronger than ever,” Xakriaba told Al Jazeera over the phone. “Indigenous women have the chance to bring new strategies to this moment of political crisis and deadly policies.”
Last year was one of the bloodiest years on record for indigenous communities in Brazil. The Indigenous Missionary Council, a religious organisation fighting for indigenous rights, recorded at least 110 murders of indigenous individuals in 2017.
“Even if you don’t go to the fight, the fight comes to you,” Xakriaba told Al Jazeera.
Since coming to power, Bolsonaro has pledged to open the Amazon to foreign prospectors, and has repeatedly said he would not “demarcate one centimetre of indigenous land”.
Nara Bare, leader of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), said the increase in violence, as well as the implementation of public policies that favour the interests of the farming industry, have pushed many women to join the traditionally male-dominated movement.
“Before, we didn’t have the necessity to be part of the movement, but now, because of the total disrespect for our peoples, for our lives, we feel the need to join our warriors, our men, to walk this journey together,” she told Al Jazeera.
In 2017, Bare was the first woman to be elected as the leader of COIAB, the biggest indigenous organisation in the country.
“I’m proud to be an example for other women and tell them, ‘yes, we can and should occupy more decision-making roles and places of power,'” she said.
Bare’s organisation was part of a successful nationwide effort to push and support a record 136 indigenous candidates in last year’s elections, including Sonia Guajajara who became the first woman in the country’s history to run as vice president.
Activist and lawyer Joenia Wapichana also ran for office. She was the only indigenous candidate to be elected and became the first ever native female federal deputy. Before her, only one other indigenous deputy was elected in the 1980s. She is now the voice of the more than 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil and faces the power of the so-called “rural bench” in Congress that represents the interests of the farming industry.
Bare said women are showing how important self-representation is in Brazil in today’s climate.
“For many time other people and institutions spoke for us,” she told Al Jazeera. “Now we are our own spokespeople. This time belongs to women, we are stronger, powerful and more present”.
But women still face many challenges. The country has the fifth-highest femicide rate in the world, according to Article 19, a UK-based rights group. The yearly homicide and suicide rates were twice as high than those of non-indigenous women between 2003 and 2013, according to the World Bank. And only 77 of the 513 deputies in Brazil’s lower house of congress are women.
Samantha Tsitsina is part of the indigenous movement in Mato Grosso do Sul, the state with the highest number of killings of individuals people. She said women also face other types of “non-explicit” violence, including prejudice and racism.
“In my village, people constantly judge that I am 34 years old with no husband or children,” she told Al Jazeera.
“If I go out of my village the looks are instantly different. When I go to the supermarket, the security guard starts following me. This is prejudice, institutionalised racism,” Tsitsina said.
“I questioned and confronted [the security guard] because I had the opportunity to go to the university and education is a means to be informed about our rights and how to defend them”, she said, adding that many women, who haven’t had access to education, suffer the abuse in silence.
Bare, Xakriaba and Tsitsina are attending this year’s Free Land Camp in Brasilia, the biggest indigenous protest in Brazil. Thousands of indigenous people from across Brazil are gathering for a three-day event this week to demand native rights be respected, especially under Bolsonaro.
“This year’s Free Land Camp is a direct response to the Government,” Xakriaba said. “Women will be there to contribute and strengthen the fight.”
For Bare, the strength of the indigenous community, especially among women, is all the more reason to continue.
“We are seeing indigenous women from the villages to the National Congress”, she says. “And that’s because we are here to defend our lives and our future generations.”