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Indigenous Women and the Move towards the SDGs

Posted on: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Keywords: Indigenous Rights, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Middle East, Asia. Combating Violence Against Women, Environmental Justice. Peace Building, Women's Health, Economic Justice, UN, Haiti

In 2000, all member countries of the United Nations pledged to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 – a target date that is rapidly approaching.  These goals aim to tackle some of the most pressing threats of our time –poverty, hunger, gender discrimination, maternal mortality and more. 

To guide development policy after 2015, a new framework is emerging – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals will attempt to build on the momentum generated by the MDGs while learning from the shortcomings of that framework. 

As governments strategize a way forward, they can already count on a vital partner to share expertise, critiques and solutions – the global Indigenous women’s movement. These women are leaders in communities on the frontlines of the very challenges the SDGs seek to confront.  Their perspective is rooted in a commitment to environmental sustainability, to a holistic understanding of health and well-being, to ending violence in all forms and to human rights. 

For 30 years, MADRE has partnered with grassroots Indigenous women’s groups. We know that the solutions they advance in local communities are needed by the whole planet  – a readymade blueprint for sustainable development.

Lessons Learned from the MDGs to Build a Stronger Development Agenda for Women 

Over the years, the MDGs have become a defining mechanism for tracking development progress. They have been adopted by governments and international institutions, incorporated into budgets and planning agendas. These MDGs have created opportunities to advance women’s human rights. But they have failed to register adequately the full scope of barriers to women’s human rights and to women’s ability to participate in a national or global development agenda. 

For instance, the challenges reflected in the MDGs threaten all people, but they are not gender neutral. The goal of eradicating extreme poverty cannot be met without acknowledging that women make up 70% of the world’s poor. Indigenous Peoples are also disproportionately impacted by poverty. Confronting this will mean grappling with specific forces that push women, Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized groups into poverty, including violence and discrimination. 

Moreover, progress towards the goals has been measured by a limited and sometimes contradictory set of technocratic “targets” and “indicators.” The MDGs use the World Bank standard of an income of US $1 per day to indicate extreme poverty. This income-based measurement of poverty obscures the experience of millions of people, for whom poverty is not primarily a function of income, but of their alienation from sustainable patterns of consumption and production. 

Indigenous women have asserted that their poverty and wealth are determined primarily by access to, and control of, their natural resources and traditional knowledge, which are the sources of Indigenous culture and livelihoods. In Indigenous communities, a human rights framework – specifically, governments’ recognition of collective Indigenous rights over land, natural resources and traditional knowledge – is key to fighting poverty. 

The MDGs call for change, but not for creating the conditions to make real change possible. To create SDGs that address the root causes of the problems that the goals are intended to rectify, we need to grapple with precisely those phenomena that the MDGs take for granted. These include policies that have increased poverty and inequality around the world – such as free-trade agreements, wage freezes and hostility to worker organizing – and subordinated human rights to “national security.” 

Ensuring a Space for Indigenous Women’s Solutions 

For the SDG process to include a space for the leadership and solutions of Indigenous women, it must be rooted in principles of human rights, democracy and inclusion. 

A Human Rights Approach

 So far, the SDG process has failed to embrace the centrality of the international human rights framework. 

In May 2013, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) reported on their recommendations for a post-2015 development agenda. Troublingly, the report waves away a rights-based framework in favor of one that instead refers to “basic needs.” 

International human rights, a set of obligations to which governments worldwide have already committed, offer a more advanced starting point for development. Ignoring this existing groundwork is a step backwards. Sustainable development—which depends on broad civic participation, social justice, preservation of natural resources and a fundamental shift in the balance of power—is sidelined by the failure of any development agenda to operate within a human rights framework. 

The Indigenous women’s movement has long understood social and economic rights as indispensable to the human rights framework. For example, these principles have been addressed in the landmark UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For many Indigenous Peoples, a concept such as the right to development dovetails closely with cultural principles that prioritize community well-being and health. 

The HLP report also neglects to build upon the frameworks that form the cornerstone of the global women’s human rights agenda, such as the Beijing Plan of Action. Rather than understanding the empowerment of women and girls as a matter of fundamental human rights, gender equality is portrayed as a means towards the goal of development. While women do contribute significantly to local and global economies, the value of protecting their human rights must not be measured in dollars.

Furthermore, Indigenous Peoples, with significant leadership from Indigenous women, have offered up a vital framework -- that of collective rights -- to land, to culture, to biodiversity and more. Collective rights uphold sustainable development by treating the Earth’s natural resources, upon which all development depends, as a global commons belonging to everyone, including future generations. 

Similarly, the principle of free, prior and informed consent, championed by Indigenous women, upholds a broad-based, democratic approach to development. Among other features, this principle allows Indigenous Peoples to safeguard territories against environmentally harmful practices, including those often employed by extractive industries, and to act as vital stewards of local ecosystems. 

There is much to be gleaned from this approach, particularly linked to its intergenerational perspective. Operating from a collective rights perspective, Indigenous women have advocated for the preservation of the territories they shared with their ancestors and that they will leave to future generations, a view that endorses policies that will protect environments and communities for the long-run. 

A Democratic, Inclusive Approach 

The SDG process has been characterized by a dizzying array of consultations, working groups and task teams, intended to collect the inputs of various stakeholders, including civil society organizations and individuals. However, these recommendations must be allowed to influence the final SDG outcomes. Already, concerns have been raised over the failure of the HLP report to adequately incorporate the voices of civil society. 

Sustainable Development for All: The Challenges Ahead 

Warning signs have already begun to emerge in the SDG process. So far, there has been insufficient attention to social, economic and cultural rights, among other human rights, and there has been an adherence to technocratic measures of poverty. What’s more, there is an ongoing failure to address harmful corporate practices, such as those of extractive industries. 

To create a development agenda that responds to the needs of the entire world’s people, policymakers must recognize that poverty is a function of human rights violations, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to development. 

The SDGs must be treated not as a technical process, but as a political process. MADRE is working with our sister organizations, including Indigenous women’s groups, and other women’s organizations internationally to push for a rights-based approach to development that goes beyond improving statistical indicators to achieve the full range of human rights for all. 


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