The Indigenous World 2021: Defending the Rights of Indigenous Women

The international agenda for defending the human rights of Indigenous women seemed promising in 2020 given the Beijing +25 anniversary. We in the International Indigenous Women's Forum (FIMI) were organising to design a clear Advocacy Route as well to prepare for our own organisation’s 20th anniversary.

Among the priorities identified for work in 2020 was facilitation of the full and effective participation of Indigenous women in the review of the Beijing Platform for Action, which was to take place during the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2020. In addition, a joint campaign was being planned with MADRE entitled “CEDAW[1] for Indigenous Women and Girls” and finally, there was the planning for the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women.

The delegation to CSW64 in New York was made up of young, adult and older women from the seven socio-cultural regions of the world. In March 2020, however, the borders closed, a global pandemic shook the world, and Indigenous Peoples were not unaffected by this.

To begin with, we were haunted by uncertainty but, despite of this, we managed to re-organise our work and our processes on behalf of Indigenous women’s rights were thus not paralysed but simply re-directed, not forgetting the priorities identified for exposure in the strategic international political advocacy spaces.

Research to strengthen advocacy: our collective proposals in the context of the political agenda and global backdrop

As part of this readjustment of our planning, we at FIMI prepared a report: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Lives of Indigenous Women[2] as an urgent tool for rights advocacy. On the basis of the information provided in this report, it can be seen that COVID-19 has created further inequality for Indigenous Peoples, and particularly for Indigenous women. The report also includes the strategies implemented by women globally, regionally and in their communities to address this crisis. Among the most important impacts identified were a lack of access to health services; spirituality; culture and intergenerational transmission of knowledge; domestic work; food; production systems; marketing and employment; increased violence, discrimination and racism; effects on mental health; and education.

Our older sisters have been at greater risk, and the death of Indigenous elders not only represents a loss of human life but also means a loss of Indigenous culture and it will only increase the ongoing ethnocide of Indigenous Peoples.

Faced with this critical situation, Indigenous women have proved their resilience by adopting innovative, creative measures based on their ancestral knowledge and practices. In this way, they have sought to exercise their rights as women and as members of their respective peoples: participating in the exercise of the right to self-determination; strengthening organisations for personal and community care; respecting different visions and promoting change for a more inclusive and just world.

One example of this is the use of self-isolation to prevent community transmission. This meant banning people from entering and leaving, and closing community borders, as seen in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some cases, women acted as guards at the gates and cordons.

Several villages conducted healing rituals and practices in which Indigenous women played a leading role, such as the Kankanaey Igorot in the Cordillera (ubaya/tengaw) in the Philippines and the Karen in Thailand (Kroh Yee). Women of the Lakota Nation in the United States have been drawing on prayers, rituals and cultural beliefs that they have implemented in their communities. Spiritual counselling in several organisations has allowed them to express their problems, restore their physical-mental balance and face up to the effects of the crisis.

Several organisations state that they have implemented therapies using traditional Indigenous medicine to prevent and treat the coronavirus. In the case of Indigenous Women from many countries in Asia, Africa, the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, this forms part of their relationship with their territory, worldview and environment. They used plants, fire, water, salt, black soap and stones to help in sterilisation, disinfection and purification; they used food and followed rituals for the well-being of the body and mind; and used inhalation or fumigation to clean houses in an environmental and safe way.

To combat food insecurity and keep the community healthy, there were documented cases in which Indigenous communities shared and/or exchanged food, water, disinfectant products, made masks to donate, or provided support to help the return of community members stranded in the cities due to lockdowns, among other things.

Communities implemented measures to lessen the educational lag caused by the pandemic. One such measure was the distribution of books in communities that have little or no access to the Internet or other electronic media for online education, in order to ensure that girls and young women do not fall behind.

The women's organisation in Nigeria prioritised the distribution of face masks to people with disabilities and family members of the unemployed. In other cases, they promoted the creation of small emergency funds.

Faced with a lack of culturally-relevant information, the Indigenous communities developed and disseminated messages in Indigenous languages aimed at ensuring a greater understanding and acceptance of the different forms of transmission, produced infection prevention protocols and information on the disease. Some organisations held public events, conducted home visits, used loudspeakers and community radio to disseminate information on COVID-19. Social networks were very useful for organising campaigns, reporting on the situation and raising funds for the most affected communities.

An intergenerational transmission of knowledge has been key. In several cases, Indigenous girls and young women were trained in the manufacture of reusable masks or in the production of sanitary pads for distribution to women and girls.

The pandemic has undoubtedly demonstrated the global vulnerability of humanity, forcing us to rethink and recreate ourselves in the face of new realities. It has also been an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the values and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, such as solidarity, reciprocity, duality of life, traditional medicine, native food production and self-government in order to guarantee health.

In addition, the current context as a result of COVID-19 has forced us to face new dynamics for political advocacy on the international agenda. Coordination and negotiation processes currently have to be carried out on virtual platforms. This situation is complex because we recognise the limitations on the part of Indigenous women at the local level in terms of accessing technology.

We have therefore sought new ways of raising our voices and finding synergies with key actors so that decisions that affect the lives of Indigenous women can be taken together with them.

25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

Another innovative tool for our advocacy in this process, which was developed collectively, is the “Global Study on the Situation of Indigenous Women and Girls in the Framework of the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action”.[3]

This study is important because the inputs gathered come from the organised Indigenous women themselves. Twenty-five years on, it also shines a light on the important progress made in recognising Indigenous women as agents of change, while identifying the many challenges that are still preventing us from achieving full exercise of our rights. The study is a cornerstone that will facilitate the production of a declaration and political agenda during the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women. It will form our compass for action in the years to come.

Tarcila Rivera Zea, President of FIMI, believes that since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, we have been strengthening our organisations and influencing international mechanisms with our own voice, putting forward proposals built on our realities, experiences and cultures, achieving significant progress in the formal recognition of our rights and our contributions to sustainable development. And yet the Political Declaration adopted by the governments at the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women shows that these 25 years of struggle for inclusion and visibility have still not been enough, given that there is only one reference to Indigenous women in the text as an example of women who “suffer multiple forms of intersectional discrimination, vulnerability and marginalisation”. Missing from the declaration are the multiple exclusions, racism and expropriation of our lands and resources that have left us in this situation.

Our collective journey and an urgent call to action

It is now imperative to adopt the new General Recommendation of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on the rights of Indigenous women and girls. As a binding instrument, CEDAW is a key tool for driving change in communities and in the daily lives of women and girls around the world.

In 2017, a formal request to promote the General Recommendation was submitted to CEDAW, where recommendations made in 2015 by the special rapporteurs and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights were taken into account.

The IXPOP collective has been conducting outreach work on the initiative since 2018. In 2019, an expert meeting on Indigenous women’s rights was organised by the Centre for Social Justice, MADRE, FIMI, Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and Women's Health Research Institute (WHRI).

With this brief account of the achievements of the Indigenous women’s movement, FIMI and MADRE would like to invite all Indigenous women to join the “CEDAW for Indigenous Women and Girls” campaign in 2021 and give voice to the initiative until it is formally adopted by the CEDAW Committee in 2022.

It is important to note the need to deepen the debate on advocacy in decision-making spaces for the recognition and protection of the rights of Indigenous women, including the discussion on all of the forms of violence we face and exposing our realities, reducing existing gaps and promoting good practices, and including our contributions as Indigenous women. This is what we hope to do during the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women, when conditions permit. In the meantime, alternative mechanisms will be found to continue our Advocacy Route.

We will continue to be active and at the forefront of the design of strategies that allow us to advance, raise the profile of, dialogue and guarantee the individual and collective rights of Indigenous women and, together with strategic allies, we will move from words to action, at the local, national, regional and international levels.



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 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.

[2] You can find the report at

[3] You can find the Global Study at:

Tags: Women, Global governance



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

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