MADRE Articles

Violence against Indigenous Women

Posted on: Thursday, April 26, 2007

Keywords: Women's Health, Combating Violence Against Women, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Indigenous Rights

by Mónica Alemán

April 25, 2007

We as Indigenous women have always worked to combat rape and other forms of sexual violence through strategies that recognize that their rights as women and as Indigenous Peoples are inextricably linked. Today, Indigenous women's anti-violence strategies must address a widespread backlash by states against women's rights, Indigenous rights and human rights generally.

For Indigenous women, historical and contemporary experiences of genocide, in combination with gender discrimination, give rise to multiple forms of gender-based violence. Today, global patterns of ongoing colonization and militarism; racism and social exclusion; and poverty-inducing economic and "development" policies generate human rights violations against Indigenous women, including gender-based violence.

These phenomena—like the multiple identities that shape each woman's experience of violence and her strategies of resistance—are interactive and mutually reinforcing. This reality demands an "integrated analysis" of violence against women, one that recognizes both the near-universality of sexual violence and the specificity of violence perpetrated on the basis of distinct, but overlapping, identities, such as gender and Indigenous status.

Towards that end, FIMI (the International Indigenous Women's Forum) has developed a critique of conventional understanding of violence against women as it occurs in the family, community and state. For Indigenous women have different definitions of, and relationships to, these institutions than do non-Indigenous women. For instance, many Indigenous women do not live in atomized nuclear families; do not define community in a time-bound manner (but rather include both past and future generations in notions of community); and are targeted with sexual violence by state actors as much on the basis of their Indigenous status as on the basis of gender.

Recognizing a uniquely indigenous experience of gender-based violence, FIMI has introduced the concept of ecological violence to illuminate the ways that the health, livelihoods, social status and cultural survival of Indigenous women are threatened by policies and practices that harm the Earth, its climate stability, and its many ecosystems. Similarly, FIMI's concept of spiritual violence is intended to elaborate the connection between violence against women and the systematic attack on Indigenous spiritual practices.

Rape as a Weapon of War

Today, a disproportionate number of the world's armed conflicts are waged on Indigenous lands and Indigenous women are routinely targeted with rape as a weapon of war. In Chiapas, Mexico, state repression of movements for Indigenous self-determination includes sexual harassment, rape, and forced prostitution of Indigenous women by Mexican soldiers and by paramilitary forces.

In Kenya, more than 1,400 Maasai and Samburu women have been raped by British soldiers stationed on their lands since the 1980s. Rape survivors, their families, and communities still suffer from the legacy of these attacks by their former colonial rulers. As these examples show, wartime rape of Indigenous women is not only a matter of "gender-based" violence: its aim is to subjugate and colonize entire Peoples. Indigenous women are targeted because of their role in biological and cultural reproduction, for as the Cheyenne say, "No nation is conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground."

Sexual Violence and Due Diligence

For many Indigenous Peoples, traditions of gender-egalitarianism that once mediated against sexual violence have been degraded by generations of colonization and assimilation. One result, documented by Indigenous women in Canada, the US and Australia, is a high level of sexualized violence within Indigenous communities. The global women's movement has called for states to criminalize and punish acts of violence against women, including rape and other forms of sexual violence. Criminalization is a potentially effective strategy. But efforts to criminalize sexual violence must address the problem of enforcing States' due diligence obligations toward members of communities that the state itself oppresses.

For example, in the United States and Australia, mandatory arrest policies in domestic violence cases have increased state intervention in, and control over, Indigenous women and their families (along with other women of color, immigrants, and poor women). Mandatory arrest policies have greatly increased the number of women arrested-most for acting in self-defense. Immigrant women-including many Indigenous women who lack immigration documents are threatened with deportation when arrested. The project of developing complementary processes to criminalization, such as restorative justice processes, and alternatives to criminalization strategies, such as political mobilization, is critical to guaranteeing the rights of Indigenous women and other women who endure violence by intimate partners and by the state.

Over the past 60 years, many organizations within the human rights movement have developed a cohesive global language, moral authority and legal structure that provides a powerful framework for the pursuit of Indigenous rights. Today, Indigenous women are working to further develop that framework in their fight against sexual violence. Indigenous women are pressing for a human rights consensus that recognizes collective rights as central to human rights and understands that an integrated analysis of forms of identities and rights violations can strengthen the human rights framework for all.

And Indigenous women are facilitating dialogues between the Indigenous movement, the human rights movement, and the global women's movement, for example, through publications such as FIMI's Mairin Iwanka Raya: Indigenous Women Stand Against Violence.

Improving strategies to combat rape and other forms of violence against Indigenous women requires promoting Indigenous women's leadership by investing in anti-violence initiatives created by and for Indigenous women and meeting urgent needs for education, training, information technology and capacity-building for Indigenous women.

Finally, because the rights of Indigenous Peoples are central to defending Indigenous women's right to a life free of violence, FIMI calls on United Nations Member States to uphold the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to pass the Declaration without amendment or change.

Mónica Alemán is the Program Director of MADRE, and International Coordinator of FIMI, the International Indigenous Women's Forum.


MADRE is proud to host 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. Visit FIMI's website to learn more about Indigenous women's worldwide initiatives to secure women's rights within their communities and the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples within their countries and in the international arena.


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