Indigenous Women Fight Back

Indigenous activists are putting up a fight ­ against violence. At the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, activists are focused on passing a declaration that recognizes the right of Indigenous Peoples to their lands, territories, and resources. This organizing drive is seeking international legal protection from the violence done to Indigenous Peoples, which over the centuries has threatened their very survival. Indigenous women, meanwhile, are organizing against gender-based violence. This violence has derived not just from gender discrimination and subordination but also from the violation of the collective rights of Indigenous communities.

At the international level, 2,500 Indigenous activists and NGO representatives from around the world have gathered in New York this month to debate the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls on governments to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination and control over their territories. At the local level, women’s groups are translating the same right to self-determination into economic autonomy and the preservation of Indigenous traditions. Much progress has been made, both internationally and locally, but the movement still faces significant obstacles.
U.S. Opposition

Last fall, when the UN General Assembly rejected a draft of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, many Indigenous leaders saw the hand of the United States behind the move. The UN Human Rights Council had approved the Declaration just the previous summer. But the United States — which includes 562 federally recognized tribes — and a handful of other wealthy governments (Canada, Australia, Russia, and New Zealand) scuttled the document.

At the sixth UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the United States is putting its weight behind an amendment proposed by a group of African governments that would strip the Declaration of its teeth and undermine decades of international legal precedent. Traditionally, states are required to ensure that national laws comply with any international agreements they have ratified. But this amendment would exempt state signatories from having to revise state laws in accordance with the UN Declaration. In effect, state ratification of the Declaration would be rendered meaningless.

The Bush administration has also claimed that the Declaration is “inconsistent with international law,” a strange concern from a government that flagrantly violated the founding document of international law — the UN Charter — in its invasion of Iraq. As well, the United States objects to the Declaration on the grounds that it could “require the recognition to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.” The United States and other countries fear the domestic implications of the Declaration. Manhattan, after all, is a Lenape word.

But the United States also does not welcome the potential global ramifications of states recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land, resources, languages, cultures, spiritual beliefs, and self-determination — all upheld by the Declaration. Consider the regime of U.S.-driven free-trade agreements that violate Indigenous rights by turning life-sustaining, Indigenous-managed ecosystems into commodities. Around the world some of the most profitable industries — including oil, natural gas, mining, and pharmaceuticals — depend on corporations having unregulated access to Indigenous territories. Or consider the issue of climate change. This year, the Inuit filed a petition against the United States at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The petition argues that climate change caused by U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions violates Inuit human rights, threatening their livelihoods, spiritual practices, and cultural identity.

In upholding Indigenous sovereignty, activists are focusing on the importance of autonomy. These are not, however, particularist campaigns. The policies that threaten Indigenous People ­ predatory corporate practices, gender-based violence ­ threaten people everywhere. The struggle for Indigenous rights, then, is intimately connected to other human rights struggles.
The Problem of Violence

Indigenous Peoples have fought for centuries against genocide, displacement, colonization, and forced assimilation. This violence has left Indigenous communities among the poorest and most marginalized in the world, alienated from state politics, and disenfranchised by national governments. In the Americas, Indigenous Peoples have a life expectancy 10-20 years less than the general population. In Central America, Indigenous Peoples have less access to education and health services, are more likely to die from preventable diseases, suffer higher infant-mortality rates, and experience higher levels of poverty than non-Indigenous Peoples.

The same general pattern holds internationally, and because of gender discrimination, the pattern is most entrenched for Indigenous women. Today, the human rights — and very survival of — Indigenous Peoples are increasingly threatened, as states and corporations battle for control of the Earth’s dwindling supply of natural resources, many of which are located on Indigenous territories.

One key concern of Indigenous women is gender-based violence. For Indigenous women, violence doesn’t only stem from gender discrimination and women’s subordination within their families and communities. It also arises from attitudes and policies that violate collective Indigenous rights. As Dr. Myrna Cunningham, an internationally recognized Indigenous leader, says, “For Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous women, exercising our rights — both as Indigenous Peoples and as women — depends on securing legal recognition of our collective ancestral territories, which are the basis of our identities, our cultures, our economies, and our traditions.”

That understanding of collective rights has enabled Indigenous women to create anti-violence strategies that address connections between issues as diverse as women’s human rights, economic justice, and climate change. These connections are reflected in Indigenous women’s organizing around the world, for instance in a Kenyan village run by Indigenous women and in a community development organization on Nicaragua’s North Atlantic coast.
It Takes a Village (Run by Women)

In Kenya, a group of 16 Indigenous Samburu women developed a bold strategy to meet the needs of women forced to flee their communities because of gender-based violence. They founded an independent, women-run village for survivors. Many of the women had been raped by British soldiers stationed for training on Samburu ancestral lands. Because of the rapes, the women’s husbands ostracized them. Several of them were forced from their homes for having “shamed” their families. Led by Rebecca Lolosoli, the women joined together and appealed to the local District Council, which governs land use. In 1990, they were granted a neglected field of dry grassland, where they have worked hard to create a unique and flourishing community, which they named Umoja, or “unity” in Swahili.

As members of the Indigenous Information Network — which works to develop connections between Indigenous groups in Kenya, strengthen Indigenous demands for human rights, and enhance the political participation of Indigenous Peoples — the women of Umoja have worked to bring human rights trainings to their community. These trainings have fortified women’s political mobilizations against gender-based violence. Referring to the Beijing Platform for Action introduced to local women in a training two years ago, Rebecca Lolosoli commented, “Now that we have seen it in writing — and seen that even our own Kenyan government has signed this — we know that we are not asking for pity or kindness but for our basic rights when we demand an end to our husbands’ beatings.”

In 1999, when the women of Umoja participated in their first human rights training, none of them had ever spoken in public. Today, they are active participants in local government and are recognized as leaders in their district. The women of Umoja are currently organizing to demand an anti-violence unit in the local police force and trainings for women police officers that enable them to address gender-based violence. These anti-violence strategies are part of the Umoja women’s broader efforts to create a better life for themselves and their community-in other words, to defend the full range of their human rights. To that end, the women have developed a system of resource sharing, a communal sickness/disability fund, and a modest but successful cooperative cottage industry selling traditional Samburu beadwork to tourists. In cooperation with the Indigenous Information Network, the women defend Samburu rights to land, water, and health and education services. Through their political mobilizations, the women have found confidence and hope that sustain their work against gender-based violence and fuel their conviction that ending violence against women is indeed possible.

Like women everywhere, the women of Umoja see economic autonomy as key to avoiding dependence on abusive men. Though they remain deeply impoverished by most people’s standards, the women have succeeded in making sure that their daughters (as well as their sons) attend school. And they have freed themselves of the economic pressure to circumcise and marry off their daughters at a young age. In fact, Rebecca Lolosoli’s 12-year-old daughter, Sylvia, openly declares her refusal of circumcision and has every intention of going to university after high school. As Rebecca Lolosoli said, “I have to be the first person to show my community that I will not circumcise my girl or pressure her to marry.”
Flower of the River

Wangki Tangni (“Flower of the River” in Miskito) is a community development organization on Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Coast that addresses violence against women in the context of defending Indigenous rights. Wangki Tangni offers women’s leadership development programs and promotes women’s political participation in the community and beyond through sustainable development projects, human rights trainings, income-generating projects, and healthcare programs that integrate Indigenous and “western” perspectives on medicine. Wangki Tangni recognizes that many Indigenous women derive identity and power from their traditional roles as midwives, advisors, spiritual guides, and leaders who are principally responsible for transmitting traditional knowledge, cultural values, and agricultural methods in their communities. Wangki Tangni works to preserve and develop these roles for women, thereby strengthening women’s social status and confidence, which in turn fortifies their capacity to demand rights and confront gender-based violence.

The organization’s anti-violence strategies draw directly from Indigenous culture. The Miskito cosmology, like that of many Indigenous Peoples, describes an egalitarian duality between the masculine and feminine realms. In Miskito tradition, women are revered and violence against them is considered deviant. This worldview offers a very different starting point for combating violence than religions or customs used to sanction male violence. As Wangki Tangni’s Director, Rose Cunningham, says, “Our traditional culture holds the seeds for condemning violence against women.”

Colonization, Christianity, and cultural assimilation have eroded egalitarian Indigenous traditions. Yet, these traditions continue to shape the identity and worldview of many Indigenous Peoples, and provide a foundation for Indigenous anti-violence strategies. For example, Wangki Tangni organizes intergenerational community dialogues, in which elders share traditional stories of women’s power and reinforce an understanding of violence against women as inherently dysfunctional. “The dialogues help us to fight violence against women,” says Rose Cunningham, “and preserve our traditional stories and the role of our elders as transmitters of Miskito culture and wisdom.” Wangki Tangni’s programs mobilize culture in opposition to gender-based violence, linking strategies against violence with strategies to maintain Indigenous identity and cultural rights.
Indigenous Issues are Everyone’s Issues

Many of the policies that most threaten Indigenous Peoples also threaten the health of the planet itself, jeopardizing our collective future. One example is global warming, caused in large part by the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. In contrast, Indigenous cultural values prioritize community cohesion over individual advancement, and emphasize reciprocity, balance, and integration with the natural world. These values — traditionally enacted, transmitted, and thus created by Indigenous women — offer a basis for policies that can support sustainable economic and environmental practices.

Our best hope of protecting the Earth’s biological (and cultural) diversity is to adapt and institutionalize those knowledge systems and technologies that have preserved diversity for millennia. These Indigenous knowledge systems embody the principle of sustainability. In fact, as the stewards of environmental, technical, scientific, cultural, and spiritual knowledge, Indigenous women have much to contribute in creating and implementing strategies for sustainable development at all levels of policymaking.

The Indigenous declaration under discussion at the UN this month does not specifically address the issue of gender-based violence. Yet, Rose Cunningham, Rebecca Lolosoli, and thousands of other Indigenous women from around the world see it as key to securing their rights as women within their communities as well as safeguarding their rights as Indigenous Peoples. That’s because they view violence against Indigenous women as emanating from violations of the traditions and territories protected by Indigenous collective rights. Rose Cunningham emphasizes colonization’s degradation of gender-egalitarian Indigenous traditions — championed again just recently by Pope Benedict. Rebecca Lolosoli focuses on the ways that state expropriation of Samburu territory has led to worsening poverty, which correlates across cultures with increased family violence against women. Indigenous women argue that ending gender-based violence in their communities depends on protecting their communities’ collective rights-and for that, the Declaration is crucial.

As this year’s UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues draws to a close, Indigenous women are facing off against the United States and other powerful state actors who oppose the Declaration. The amendment forwarded by the United States — which would exempt states from enforcing the declaration once they ratify it — is a classic Bush administration maneuever. It expresses the logic of the hundreds of “signing statements” that Bush has used to place himself above U.S. federal law. The international Indigenous women’s movement does not intend to let this maneuver undermine its work for human rights. The movement will continue to work for the passage of the Declaration in the international arena and for the rights of Indigenous women within their communities.


For More Information

The Indigenous Information Network, Wangki Tangni, and the Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development are partners of MADRE. MADRE also hosts the Secretariat of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (known by its Spanish acronym, FIMI), a network of Indigenous women leaders from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In 2006, FIMI released Mairin Iwanka Raya: Indigenous Women Stand against Violence (available at, a companion report to the UN Secretary General’s study on violence against women.

YIFAT SUSSKIND is communications director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She is the author of a book on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and a report on US culpability for violence against women in Iraq, both forthcoming.