The Indigenous World 2022: Defending the Rights of Indigenous Women
With their wisdom, energy and empowerment, Indigenous women are agents of change both in their own lives, as Indigenous women, and in the lives of their peoples, as members of their communities. They plant the seeds with which to defend and demand full exercise of their individual and collective rights. Some have flourished, for example, in the recognition of their diverse identities and ancestral roots, in the daily vindication of their rights as women, and in the constant struggle for the defence of their territories. They remain united in the struggle and are continuing to strengthen collective leaderships, from the local to the global level.
In 2021, in the context of the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, networks of Indigenous women’s organisations worked together to prepare The Global Study on the Situation of Indigenous Women and Girls, which guided their participation and contribution to the Generation and Equality Forum.
They also walked side by side, sharing strategies and key points in order to encourage the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to issue a general recommendation on Indigenous women and girls.
Over the past 25 years, Indigenous women’s capacity to promote crucial issues on the international development and human rights agendas has been remarkable. Through the Global Political Declaration of Indigenous Women, the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women, held in August-September 2021, will act as a key focus for the work of the coming years.
They therefore form both the warp and the weft of the strategy for good living, from local leadership all the way up to global spaces.
The Global Study on the Situation of Indigenous Women and Girls
According to the Global Study on the Situation of Indigenous Women and Girls, there are an estimated 476,600,000 Indigenous people in the world, of whom 238,400,000 are women. Overall, they represent 6.2% of the world's population but account for 15% of the world's poorest people. In all regions, poverty is identified as a multidimensional problem affecting Indigenous women, one that represents a serious barrier to equality and full enjoyment of human rights. Poverty is, moreover, a consequence of discriminatory policies caused by a capitalist economic model and new forms of colonialism related to the dispossession of lands and territories, the loss of activities or livelihoods, armed conflicts and the effects of climate change.
The report also noted that heavy reliance on informal labour and its concentration in areas threatened by climate change places Indigenous women at a disadvantage compared to their non-indigenous counterparts and Indigenous men. Moreover, they are prone to many other problems: macroeconomic adjustment policies that disproportionately affect them; discriminatory laws related to land rights, natural resources, loans and credit; and aggressive development projects, such as mining and agribusiness.
To address the sinking that is being caused by climate change in the South Pacific Islands, Indigenous women have joined the Outer Islands Food and Water Project, through which they ensure household food security, nutrition and access to clean water.
In the Mau Forest, near Kenya's Ewaso Nyiro River, more than 900 Paran women living in the foothills have begun to experience water shortages due to climate change. Their answer to this challenge, and to guarantee an income with which to feed themselves, has been to plant trees and cultivate nurseries of native species, produce charcoal from forest waste and clay stoves, collect seeds from medicinal plants, produce honey and raise chickens. Now, all over Narok County, there are women implementing and spreading the teachings of the Paran women.
Moñeka De Oro, an Indigenous woman from the Chamoru people, was selected by the U.S. State Department as a Pacific Young Leader for her contribution to community work on climate change. The organisation in which she participates is also implementing programmes aimed at economically empowering women through training in glasswork and traditional recipes. As a result, Indigenous women's political involvement in promoting Indigenous Peoples’ rights, including food sovereignty, has increased.
Despite the reality that is threatening Indigenous women on a daily basis, both individually and collectively, they have demonstrated their resilience and contributions, putting their knowledge to the service of their peoples and humanity. In turn, they are challenging the extremely adverse situations in which they find themselves, namely poverty, the violence to which they are subjected and the COVID-19 health crisis.
Indigenous women's leadership
From Indigenous women’s point of view, leadership involves being a guide, walking with, accompanying, being a bridge that connects with and guides others without imposing, in the search for the common good of all women and their peoples. They create solidarity networks and promote equality, taking on commitments from the individual through to the collective level. Indigenous women’s leadership promotes an open, clear and respectful dialogue, making it possible to identify solutions to historical and structural problems with the aim of achieving balance and harmony in their communities.
One notable example of Indigenous women's leadership is that of the Aguaruna Huambisa Council (CAH). The organisation was created in 1977 to bring together the Awajún and Wampis peoples of the Peruvian Amazon around the same goal: defence of their land and territory. Raquel Caicat has been one of the CAH women promoting a more feminine view of territorial defence. At the age of 22, she set up a sewing workshop exclusively for women. It was in this space, without the presence of men, that she began to talk to the women about their rights. These teachings were thus passed on to the rest of her people and they gained popularity even among the male leaders. In 1999, Raquel was appointed Vice-President of the organisation and, in 2017, 40 years after its founding, CAH appointed an Indigenous woman as its President.
Developing and strengthening leadership from the perspective of Indigenous women means recognising that they have broken paradigms by confronting a patriarchal and racist system that has historically excluded them. It has involved opening paths, raising collective voices, demanding rights and justice. But, above all, it has facilitated the creation of networks for coordination and joint work with their peoples and other leaders in order to position their demands, negotiate proposals and turn them into individual and collective actions that stretch from the community to the global level.
The road travelled
Over the past 25 years, Indigenous women’s ability to place crucial development and human rights issues on the international agenda has been remarkable. Significant progress has been made at the national level. Most countries in the Americas, the Arctic and some in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, have improved women’s participation in politics, promoted poverty reduction policies, and increased women’s and girls’ access to health services, education and training. In addition, they have supported women’s empowerment and economic autonomy, as well as the fight against violence and human rights violations.
These positive changes have been activated and driven by organised Indigenous women’s initiatives at the local, national, regional and global levels, drawing on the resources and experiences of key stakeholders, all united around the goal of promoting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous women in all spheres.
In Cameroon, for example, Ogiek women describe their level of participation in national decision-making processes as still very low. The traditional patriarchal aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ cultural systems, a lack of education and high illiteracy rates prevent them from participating in decision-making and power processes.
And yet in countries considered “developed”, too, such as Canada, Indigenous women are under-represented in positions of democratic and political leadership, including Indigenous authorities. According to data from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in 2019 only 94 of the 545 existing chiefs were women.
In describing the persistent challenges, the above-mentioned global study also highlights the fact that the situation of Indigenous women cannot be adequately described and understood without simultaneous reference to both individual and collective rights. Violations of collective land rights and self-determination have concrete impacts on the individual rights of Indigenous women. For Indigenous women, most of the critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action are deeply intertwined with their experience of self-determination and their relationship with the land, which shapes their status as women and as Indigenous people.
As part of the global position of Indigenous women prepared for the Generation Equality Forum, they therefore highlighted their contributions to sustainable development, conservation and preservation of biodiversity and natural resources, and the resilience they have achieved in the face of a global crisis such as that of COVID-19, based on their worldview, wisdom, spirituality, knowledge, innovations and practices as agents of change. They also value what has been achieved in terms of legal and political recognition, both at the international and national levels, in relation to their individual and collective rights, as well as organisational advances in the development of common agendas set in motion to achieve gender equality and good living.
Another international mechanism in which the impact of Indigenous women has been decisive is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In a world where women, in all our diversities, experience profound inequality, this instrument has special relevance for the life and protection of women’s rights, including those of Indigenous women. This international treaty does not, however, specifically recognise Indigenous women and girls as subjects of individual and collective rights. This means that the Convention does not provide adequate protection from the multiple discriminations and violence they face.
In cooperation with regional Indigenous women’s networks, the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (IIWF) therefore organised a virtual dialogue: Walking Together on the Path of Change, in which they shared strategies and key points so that their voices, perspectives and demands would be reflected in a CEDAW General Recommendation on the rights of Indigenous women and girls. The recommendation affirmed the importance of maintaining a diversity of voices, including women and girls with disabilities and the LGBTQI community. In addition, it ensured that a collective interpretation of rights was made and that they were integrated in a holistic manner, from an inclusive and intersectional perspective.
“Nothing About Us Without Us” has been an historical demand and one that was present for Indigenous women’s organisations and networks in the annual implementation review of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Over the past four years, Indigenous women have actively participated in and contributed to the voluntary reviews undertaken by States within the UN system regarding implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
From their organisational work, Indigenous women have contributed to achieving these objectives, implementing actions aimed at ending poverty, moving towards more equitable health, continuing to work for the protection of ecosystems, advancing education with equality, their own empowerment and moving towards an economy for good living. At the same time, they are continuing to demand that States take up their responsibility and role as guarantors of the rights of Indigenous women and their peoples.
The Second World Conference of Indigenous Women. From words to action
In the midst of significant advances and outstanding challenges, it was invaluable that the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women was held in 2021 with the theme of “Together for wellbeing and Mother Earth”. This was a space in which the voices, views, experiences, good practices, dreams, knowledge, proposals and values of Indigenous women were brought to life and recognised. But, above all, it allowed them to weave their spirituality collectively, even when faced with the challenge of using virtual spaces and the technology gap.
This global conference, organised by IIWF, the Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas de las Américas, the Alianza de Mujeres Indígenas de Centroamérica y México, African Indigenous Women's Organisation, Sámi Women's Forum, Network of Indigenous Women in Asia, Asian Indigenous Women's Network, and Pacific Network through I Hagan Famalåo'an Guåhan, strengthened the local, regional and global Indigenous women's movement. A global and diverse agenda was agreed by which to advance the recognition and realisation of their collective and individual rights. More than 500 Indigenous women from all around the world (North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Arctic), elders, youth, urban and rural dwellers, Indigenous women with disabilities, women leaders, activists, artists, women from the LGBTQI community, women working in governments and in United Nations agencies all participated.
During the working sessions, they shared their concerns and realities, recognising that some progress had been made in the participation of Indigenous women, including Indigenous women with disabilities, in political processes at the local, national and international levels. However, achievement of “full and effective participation” and inclusion in decision-making spaces and mechanisms in all matters that affect them is still a long way off.
They reaffirmed their capacity for resistance and their spirit of resilience, sharing the affirmative actions and good practices they have accumulated, which have been key to continuing their path without seeing themselves as victims but rather assuming their light, knowledge and strength. Weaving together recommendations which, rather than wait for their fulfilment, they will demand and make a reality.
They also called for a transformation of power whereby the paternalistic and racist approach is replaced by an equitable collaboration between States, UN bodies, mechanisms and agencies, other relevant actors and donors to Indigenous women’s organisations, mixed organisations and the self-governance structures of our Indigenous Peoples. These need to be converted into funding programmes based on the needs expressed by the communities themselves in order to ensure the advancement of the social, cultural and economic development of Indigenous women and girls.
States also need to adopt specific, inclusive and accessible measures such as targeted affirmative actions and programmes to address the condition of Indigenous women, from a global understanding that the discrimination and violence experienced by Indigenous women is multidimensional, and that this understanding is closely linked to their worldview, the rights of nature, and their role as defenders of the environment and ancestral guardians of Mother Earth.
States need to amend and revise existing laws, policies and rules, or establish new provisions to bring them fully in line with their commitments and obligations under international instruments and to recognise and protect the rights of Indigenous women. They further need to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are established which reflect collective dimensions of the right to equality, non-discrimination, self-determination and freedom from all forms of violence.
Final reflections on an urgent call for fulfilment of Indigenous women's demands
By recognising and respecting the existence, knowledge and actions of Indigenous women, in both their concurring and their dissenting views and voices, they will continue to advance with firm steps towards achieving full and effective enjoyment of their well-being, affirmed in their spirituality, identities and world visions as the basis that sustains their leadership.
The advocacy route has involved deep internal organisational processes whereby demands and proposals have been redefined, making use of the human rights framework and without losing sight of the path along which their ancestors walked.
The International Indigenous Women's Forum (IIWF) is a global network that brings together Indigenous women from seven socio-cultural regions. IIWF is focused on advocacy, capacity building, economic empowerment and leadership development.
This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 in full here
Notes and references
 IIWF-FIMI. 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. Our Voices and Actions for Our rights after 25 Years of Beijing Platform for Action. IIWF-FIMI, 2021.
 Kumar Dhir, Rishabh, Umberto Cattaneo, Maria Victoria Cabrera Ormaza, Hernan Coronado, Martin Oelz. Implementing the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169: Towards an inclusive, sustainable and just future. International Labor Organization (ILO), February 3, 2020.
 IIWF-FIMI. 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. Our Voices and Actions for Our Rights after 25 Years of Beijing Platform for Action. IIWF-FIMI, 2021.
 The Generation Equality Forum - Mexico City in March and in Paris from 30 June – 2 July 2021.
 “Global statement by Indigenous Women for the Generation Equality Forum and beyond.” 2021. https://forogeneracionigualdad.mx/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Global-Statement-GEF-and-Indigenous-Women-ENG.pdf
 “Global Political Declaration of Indigenous Women”. https://www.asianindigenouswomen.org/files/Global_Political_Declaration_of_Indigenous_Women_2WCIW.pdf