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Indigenous Women: Fighting for Rights, Creating Change

Posted on: Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Keywords: Women's Health, Combating Violence Against Women, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Peace Building, Indigenous Rights

MADRE Speaks Spring/Summer 2007

Long-time MADRE supporters may recall that our first partnership—formed in 1983—was with Indigenous women in Nicaragua. Ever since then, MADRE has worked with Indigenous women who are organizing to promote women's rights within their communities and the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples internationally. In fact, because all human rights are interrelated, Indigenous women's rights depend on winning collective rights. As Dr. Myrna Cunningham, an internationally recognized Indigenous leader and MADRE's initial partner, 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."

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 all of MADRE's sister organizations is violence against women. 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. That understanding has enabled Indigenous women to create anti-violence strategies that address the connections between issues as diverse as women's human rights, economic justice, climate change, and collective rights. These connections are reflected in MADRE's programs with Indigenous women around the world.

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. The women were survivors of rape by British soldiers stationed for training on Samburu ancestral lands. Because of the rapes, the women's husbands ostracized them. Many 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. 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, the women of Umoja have worked with MADRE 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 2005 MADRE training, 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 genderbased 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 MADRE and the Indigenous Information Network, the women work to defend Samburu rights to land, water, and health and education services. Through their political mobilizations, the women have found confidence and hope that facilitate their work against genderbased 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."

Wangki Tangni

Wangki Tangni ("Flower of the River" in Miskitu) 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 worldviews in which religion or custom is used to sanction male violence. As Wangki Tangni's Director, Rose Cunningham, says, "For us, 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

Today, many of the policies that most threaten Indigenous Peoples are the same policies that 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 succeeded in preserving diversity for millennia. These are Indigenous knowledge systems, which embody the principle of sustainability. In fact, as the stewards of environmental, technical, scientific, cultural, and spiritual knowledge, Indigenous women hold the keys to creating and implementing strategies for sustainable development at all levels of policymaking. Clearly, much remains to be done for Indigenous women's perspectives to be reflected in public policies. Yet, that is precisely what our current global economic and environmental crisis demands and what MADRE's programs work toward.

BY Yifat Susskind, Communications Director


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