Violence against indigenous women and the twofold challenge

Militarisation of indigenous territories force women to face unconscionable abuses based on gender discrimination.

Indigenous women perform a ritual during
Violence against indigenous women gets attention and analysis only when an external factor - particularly the dominant culture or states themselves - is involved, and not when their cultural practices produce violence [AFP]

“Two of every three women murdered died for the simple reason: they were women. In 2012, recorded cases numbered 526 for Guatemala, 245 for Honduras and 231 for El Salvador (CLADEM, 2012). The most emblematic cases of violence against women, they are being used as weapons in a conflict, which take place in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras.” – Violence and Indigenous Women, a document presented by ECMIA to the CSW57, March 2013.

In many contexts, woman in Latin America face an uphill battle to maintain even the most basic human rights. This is magnified for indigenous women.

There have been some significant international treaties and conventions created to address such a problem. However, due to a host of reasons they have proven to be ineffective. Though developing such a body of law is crucial in protecting indigenous women, without thorough educational programmes utilising any legal infrastructure is highly unlikely. Even without educational impediments, women in such communities are stigmatised and pushed to the periphery of hyper-patriarchal societies. 

Even throughout our own indigenous communities, women are excluded from the decision-making process, unable to lobby or build towards better representation and ultimately implementing strategic plans developed for and by indigenous women.

Gender discrimination

The structural barriers that prevent women from establishing any form of political mobility can only be eroded if the courageous women who have arduously sought redress are recognised as valuable political actors. As part of the political process, they would be able to better shape a positive dialogue, entrenching the status of Native women in each respective national dialogue. 

Political mobility of women is crucial for the development and protection of indigenous communities. Diversifying the national conversation, addressing critical issues such as armed confluct, public health, sexual and reproductive health, education reform, youth violence etc, well only strengthen indigenous culture. 

The effect of armed conflict on indigenous women can be miserable. Militarisation of indigenous territories force women to face unconscionable abuses based on gender discrimination and criminalisation by legal or illegal armed forces.

Sexual violence is used as a tool to control the whole community. The female body is abused time and again with rape, murder or abduction and disappearance. For indigenous peoples, atrocities committed against their women means a breakdown of society as a whole. Moreover, situations get worse due to lack of investigation into complaints filed by indigenous peoples, resulting in impunity.

There is another potential problem for indigenous women: the presence of multinational companies in indigenous territories. When established, MNCs were expected to greatly benefit indigenous peoples, but now they have become an endless source of frustration. 

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As if the negative impacts caused by these MNCs were not sufficient, many political and social sectors continue to play with the future of indigenous peoples while implementing new megaprojects. The result has been an indiscriminate devastation of Mother Earth.

For indigenous communities like the Wayuu people, who are located in the Colombian and Venezuelan border, Wounmainkat (or Mother Earth) is the woman who gave birth to the whole humanity. So, for us, exploitation of natural resources is nothing less than raping a woman.

Unfortunately, there are no official statistics to show the impact of these mega projects and MNCs on indigenous women.

Preserving our culture

The United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) have monitored indigenous women in Latin America for more than two decades as part of international negotiations. Organisations like the Continental Network of Indigenous Women from the Americas (ECMIA) have done a commendable job, and their contributions have been fundamental for the recognition of our rights.

The 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women – the main global policy-making body of the UN, exclusively dedicated to gender equality and the advancement of women – was held between March 4 and 15 in New York.

During the session, indigenous women discussed not just their problems, but also requested the states to establish routes, mechanisms and controls to eradicate violence from their regions and life.

Violence against indigenous women gets attention and analysis only when an external factor – particularly the dominant culture or states themselves – is involved. On the other hand, when cultural practices produce violence against indigenous women, it is justified as our cultural permanence, conservation and perpetuation of our customs, traditions and civilisation. 

The legitimate and pertinent focus on defending indigenous peoples’ customs and traditions must in no way be used as an excuse to postpone the essential debate on cultural practices. When certain indigenous traditions place women under subordination, it can obviously trigger violence.

In this scenario of tradition and change, indigenous women face a twofold challenge. First, it is our duty to contribute to the promotion, strengthening and revitalisation of our traditional cultures. Second and most importantly, we should have a debate on the need to transform our cultural traditions that have become obstacles for the development of indigenous women.

Karmen is a Wayuu indigenous woman from Colombia. She has worked as a consultant for the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. She is also editor of several online portals for indigenous peoples. She currently works as a consultant for international affairs for Wayuu Women’s Force and other indigenous women’s organisations in Latin America.

Follow her on Twitter: @Wayunkerra