The Future of Indigenous Communities: How Women are taking the Lead

An interview with the Listen, Ladies podcast.  Download this and other interviews here:

Maryalice Aymong  (MA): Hi listeners! I’m very fortunate to be here at the UN Women offices during the final days of a very important two-week event “The UN permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues”. I’m here with Beatrice Duncan—she is the constitutional and access to justice advisor here at UN Women, and she’s also the focal point for indigenous issues which means she is the absolutely perfect person to be talking to about this. So Beatrice, thank you so much for having me here today.

Beatrice Duncan (BD): It’s a pleasure.

MA: Great. Um, so before we dive into the subject, I’d love for our listeners to get to know a little bit more about you. You have an extensive background and focus on gender rights and also social justice and law, so how did you kind of get to this point? Where are you from? What’s your background?

BD: Well I’m a native of Ghana, and I’ve always been interested in issues of social justice,  particularly women and girls, and my two areas of focus have been women’s law and children’s law. And when I joined Unicef Ghana, in the year 2010, I had the unique opportunity to work on indigenous issues for the first time. And it didn’t take me long to get it—I understood the issues quite clearly because indigenous people come from a background of colonialism and I’m also a product of colonialism. My country was also colonized, um, before 1957, and I understood immediately what indigenous people have been going through and continue to go through.

MA: What specifically were you connecting with?

BD: The most startling connection was the sense of culture and tradition and beauty among indigenous peoples. The colors that they exude in their dress, and tradition, uh, you know, the way they compose themselves, and their sense of pride their persistency and sense of need to ensure that they are given an equal place in society, that has always spurred me on as an individual, and it has always been a source of positive impression on me.

MA: That’s very interesting. In my research I found that the UN doesn’t have an official definition for the term, “indigenous people.” So I was wondering, you know, for our listeners who aren’t quite clear exactly what that entails, you know, how do you describe an indigenous group? What are the unifying qualities?

BD: I think it usually doesn’t help any society to be defined. The moment you define a person or group of people, that places them in a box. So rightly so, the UN Forum for Indigenous Issues has advised that we do not define “indigenous people.” But we can describe them through both an objective and a subjective criteria. So the objective criteria is basically, a set of criteria that an individual, such as yourself or myself, would look at in order to determine if this is possibly an indigenous person. Indigenous people usually say that they are the custodians of the land, they are the first owners of the land, and they were there—they were not discovered. Okay, so that’s another way of describing an indigenous person. But by and large, indigenous peoples according to the UN Permanent Forum, also have an opportunity to determine whether they’re indigenous or not. An indigenous person can actually proclaim or declare that they are indigenous, so that is the subjective criteria. If an indigenous person actually confirms based upon what you see, as being indigenous, then coupled with your objective criteria, and their subjective criteria, that makes them an indigenous person. They have a right to actually indicate whether they are indigenous or not.

MA: This forum is a celebration in part of the ten-year anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What led to that document, and what was it designed to achieve?

BD: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was agreed upon as a declaration of the United Nations in 2007, and was a combination of over 20 years of negotiation for the specific rights of indigenous peoples to be recognized. That isn’t or wasn’t to states that indigenous people’s rights were not recognized in other human rights instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international Bill of Human Rights, and even the UN chatter actually recognizes the rights of all persons. International human rights law comes in different shapes and forms, so the instruments that I just outlaid, including the convention, on the rights of elimination of all forms of discrimination, which is a convention that UN Women works with most of the time, recognizes the individual rights of persons. Whereas the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for the first time, recognizes the collective rights of indigenous peoples. So that is what makes the declaration very special. Some of the collective rights includes the right to self-determination, the right to be informed when the islands are going to be possessed for development, and this is what we call the principle of free pride and informed consent, the right to, um, you know, the um, lands, territories and resources, and for the ancestral territories and passels of land to be recognized. All of these are recognized collective rights, so what it means is that these lands don’t belong to one individual, but actually belong to a group of people, and so indigenous people want those group rights to be respected.

MA: When the declaration came to be, does it include any kind of an enforcement mechanism? How does the UN follow up to see if these rights are being met?

BD: Well, that’s a very good question. That’s why we are in the season of the 16th session of the forum. The UN Permanent Forum, uh, was established in in 2000—that was about seven years before the declaration was actually agreed upon. To advise ECOSOCC on how to implement the rights of indigenous people.

MA: Could you explain what does ECOSSOCC stand for?

BD: It stands for the Economic Social and Cultural Council of the UN. The UN Permanent Forum, consisting of 16 members, meets every year, as a huge gathering in New York, to actually oversee the implementation of the UN Declaration. But there is also another office known as the Special reporter on the Rise of Indigenous Peoples that undertakes special visits at the request of countries to also determine how indigenous peoples are feeling in their respective countries, and whether or not the declaration is actually being implemented. There is also another body, it’s a mouthful. It’s the Expert Mechanism on the Rise of Indigenous Peoples. That body is also based in Geneva, and it’s a creation of the Human Rights Council. They also focus on the implementation of the human rights of indigenous peoples all over the world, and they undertake various studies just to check whether these rights are being met.

MA: We’re obviously here at UN Women, and I’m wondering if you can talk specifically about how issues facing indigenous communities specifically affect women, maybe uniquely.

BD: Yes. Let me just give you a typical example: Indigenous peoples’ lands and territories are always, constantly under threat. What usually happens is that if a country wants to create a dam for example, or to drill a water dam, or to build a huge hospital to serve a particular community within the nation, if there are no lands within the city, they would often go into communities that are owned by indigenous peoples. What the government is required to do, is to consult with indigenous peoples prior to those lands being taken. Many times, that isn’t done, and often times it leads to tensions, disagreements and conflicts. Often times when indigenous peoples demonstrate, it gains the violation of this right—they are often muted or greeted with violence on the part of the state. Many times they get hurt—sometimes they get killed, or they are imprisoned.  In 2016 alone, 185 human rights defenders were killed. Of these, 40% were indigenous peoples. These incidences of murders and killings have often taken place within the contested rights of indigenous peoples over their lands, territories and resources. So when the state does not recognize that indigenous peoples have the rights to preserve and protect their ancestral lands, this often does lead to the violation of these rights. What impact does it have on women?

MA: Right

BD: When the state forcibly dispossesses indigenous peoples from their lands, it leads to a dislocation of families and communities. Families break up, women are therefore forced to move to other communities, they are often forced to move to other countries through migration. In the process, they are also subject to various forms of violence, such as sexual violence and trafficking. I would also like to indicate how it impacts upon their economic rights, because the land is used for sustenance—it’s used for food production, it’s used to sustain the family. When lands are taken forcibly, it means that both men and women are deprived of the opportunity to look after their families. It deprives them of economic sustenance, as well as security—physical security.

MA: One of the speakers at the forum this week said something that stood out to me. UN Women deputy director Lakshmi Puri—said: “Indigenous women and girls need to be aware of their traditions, but also their human rights.” Could you sort of give me an idea of what she was getting at with that?

BD: Yes, because being aware of your rights is very important. Lack of knowledge of rights is a very disempowering experience.

MA: Yes!

BD: Because when you don’t know your rights, it means that first of all, you don’t know that there are specific laws in place to protect you, such as laws against early marriage, laws against female genital mutilation, laws that allow you to go to school, laws that allow you to participate in politics, and decision making at all levels, laws that allow you to own land, laws that allow you to make decisions that affect your own reproductive rights and to determine how many children you would like to have, and the spacing of those children. If you don’t know these rights, and you’re not aware of the institutions that have been established by the state, to protect those rights for you, then in that case you become very disempowered and very disillusioned.

MA: With that in mind, what kind of advances have you seen being made to help women and girls become aware of these rights? Are there specific programs in place to sort of create more awareness and empowerment?

BD: First of all, let us use this opportunity to celebrate indigenous women and girls themselves, because they have taken their future into their own hands, and as much as institutions such as the UN system is in existence to support them, they don’t look up to the UN system as, um, you know, their only sense of help. They look to themselves as their forms of inspiration and hope. So indigenous women and girls have been cited as one of the strongest groups that have led India in the development of their communities, and they have persistently fought to ensure that their rights are protected.

30097058330_e69db83a17_zMA: I’m so glad that you brought that up because I was reading about some of the women participating in this week’s events, and I came across one woman who’s getting her Masters at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro, another one is attending nursing school—so we’re just seeing a lot of really amazing advances,  and I’m also wondering,  after women and girls have to leave home to attend a university or a school, are you seeing a lot of them come back to their communities and bring that knowledge to try to make a difference there?

BD: Absolutely, yes! There are numerous examples of indigenous women who have reached the highest levels of education, and have gone have to their communities to support. If I may cite one example:

MA: Please!

BD: Of Dr. Mena Cunningham, who is a native of Nicaragua. She started off as a nurse during the war in her country. She tells me that she actually delivers some of her babies herself and eventually became a doctor. But now we know that Dr. Mena Cunningham has been of great service to her community, has been of great service to her country, and has been of great service to the indigenous population as a whole, she once served as the chair of the Permanent Forum, she led the indigenous peoples during the negotiations of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and she is simply a role model to both men and women alike. I would also like to cite the example of the current special reporter on indigenous peoples. Ms. Vicitalicopas is also a nurse by profession, but has spent a lot of her years negotiating legal instruments. She doesn’t have a legal background, but she’s been negotiating legal instruments—in fact, she was at the forefront of the negotiations on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She was also once, um, the chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples and she’s now the first female special reporter on the rights of indigenous peoples.

MA: Another thing I wanted to circle back on was the connection to land that indigenous communities experience and particularly with climate change. I was reading that we can learn a lot about what’s going on with the environment from what indigenous people are experiencing.

BD: Well, you know, indigenous peoples, they’ve been described as one of the best examples of land custodians. This is because they know how to maintain the land and the ecology. Just to make sure the soil doesn’t lose its nutrients, just to make sure that the environment is maintained and so they’ve been over several years. During climate change negotiations, it’s often said that it is important that we learn from indigenous peoples. However, when their land rights are not respected, and their lands are taken away from them forcibly, then the opportunities to maintain their lands in the way that their forefathers have been doing over the years is then lost, This then impacts upon the quality of the land, the quality of agriculture, as well as the quality of food security. So extractive industries, as we usually call them,

MA: So that’s like coal, for example?

BD: Yes, coal and those who drill, you know, into the land and who, you know, rely on land to obtain natural resources. Maybe for buildings, for example. You know, some industries need to drill into the soil in order to get some stones, to put up building, right? So indigenous women have come up with a new concept of violence, that I learned about four years ago, and that is environmental violence. It happens that when the extractive industries engage in these activities without the consent of indigenous people, without the participation, it impacts not only on the immediate environment, but also on water bodies. It is, sometimes these water bodies that indigenous people use in watering their crops. So what we are learning is that sometimes harmful substances end up on the crops, and I don’t want to mention this but then it’s also leading to diseases—very serious diseases.

MA: We’re at the 10-year anniversary right now of this declaration being signed. 10 years from now, what kind of progress are you hoping to be celebrating?

BD: Ten years from now, in relation to indigenous women, we mustn’t separate the progress that we want for them from the progress we want for women broadly. We want to see equality between indigenous women and indigenous men, and we also want to see the removal of disparities between indigenous women and non-indigenous women. I would like to see a situation in which when an indigenous woman goes to the hospital, she’s pregnant and she goes to the hospital, she is given equal treatment—that she is respected for who she is, and if she wants a cultural dimension to delivery, for example, that hospital authorities would respect the intercultural dimensions of, you know, indigenous women’s birth rights—maternal rights. This is in relation to giving birth in hospitals. I would also like to believe that disparities in educational enrollment, educational retention, in schools would reduce as far as indigenous girls are concerned, and that we will see more indigenous female doctors, indigenous female lawyers, indigenous female scientists to contribute to the debates.

I am also hoping that the discussions of the Permanent Forum would also change in terms of context and impact within the next ten years, and that the Forum would be able to make more strategic choices and strategic decisions that would impact upon indigenous peoples in the longer term, rather than in the short term. We have to see indigenous women as equal partners, and that the work that they perform at the domestic level, as we have been fighting for and calling for, in all contexts for all women. This is what we refer to as unpaid care-work, and that women would be given an opportunity to work outside of the home environment and contribute equally to the development of their communities.

MA: Well those are all very important goals and I wish you the best of luck in helping the community get there.

BD: We have to.

MA: Thank you so much. Beatrice Duncan!

BD: Thank you!

Tarcila Rivera Zea 

Listen Ladies (LL): I’m sitting here with Tarcila Rivera Zea. She’s part of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues and widely recognized as one of the most impactful activists for indigenous communities. She’s specifically focused on advocating for women and girls, and she’s been creating new opportunities for them in the process. Tarcila, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Tarcila (T): Thank you so much for inviting me.

MA: Alright, so I should also mention that you were recognized by the Ford Foundation as a visionary global leader in 2011, so congratulations for that. I’m hoping we can start even earlier in your life, going all the way back to your childhood. I know you were born in Peru. So can you tell me a little bit about your community and your experiences growing up?

T: I was monolingual until I was 10. That’s my first issue, and when I went out of the community it was like discovering the world outside. If we use only our language in the community, when we go out we can’t speak with other people, and we suffer discrimination because we are monolingual or because we live in the Andes, in the mountains. It’s very difficult to explain that, in our communities, we are considered people—persons—but when we go out, society looks at us as non-persons, as low class without any rights.

image1.JPG indigenous maryalice

Photo: Maryalice Aymong (right) with Tarcila Rivera Zea

MA: You mentioned that at a young age, you felt like,“ I’m just going to go out there and do this.”  Where did that come from? How did you get that perseverance?”

T: I don’t know why because in many cases, indigenous women or girls, if you don’t have the same opportunities to go to school, to have relationships with other peoples, to be considered as persons in the family, you have only two possibilities: to continue the history of all women without education, illiteracy, many times with a husband, not so pacific and having many children. The other case is that you have to be stronger and to see further than your little space. I wanted to learn how to write and read, and the important thing too is that I had my parents, who were monolingual, and they died monolingual, but they always encouraged us to be better than them.

MA: I’m glad you mentioned that because I was reading an article that you wrote, and the quote that stuck out to me was, “My parents, illiterate as they were, pushed to learn more.”

T: Yes.

MA: Could you talk a little bit about how they did that?

T: In the community, my mother was like a person, not like a typical woman who works only in domestic activities. She worked with my father in the camp, in productive activities. She would always say to us, “if you want someday to have a better dress or want to drink a beer, you have to do your part, not waiting for a man or your husband.”

MA: That’s good advice!

T: That’s the first lesson. And my father always said, “if you have one piece of bread, you have to share between the four of you because we are four brothers and sisters; and in this case, if you make an effort to obtain that bread, you have the right to share the bread, but if you never do anything to have the bread, you will lose your pride and dignity.” As a girl, you can do something with dignity, because if the mother will prepare the food, you can go to carry on the water for the soup and you receive a very delicious food and you’ll be very happy because you did something for, to share that, or to prepare that.

MA: You were involved in the process. Obviously a lot happened between your being a child and having those experiences and then becoming really involved in advocacy. I was wondering what inspired you to sort of try to take action and go back and help your community.

T: In my case, I never think only as individual. I was only thinking collectively: my sisters, my family, or the community. Now we think as global persons, global citizens, and we think what happens all over the world with indigenous women like us? And we have that kind of dream to have a different scenario for indigenous women all over the world. When we talk with new generation, with young women…Now they are trying to learn English, they are trying to be very good professionals, and we said, okay the new generation will be better than us. It’s like a cycle, isn’t it?

MA: Yeah!

T: Our mother-in-law, our mother, and we—and the future generation—we think the opportunities for indigenous women and young girls are opening, but it’s the result of our struggle during all our life.

MA: You’re the founder of an organization called Chirapaq, which is the hunger project’s partner organization in Peru. Can you tell me a little bit about what that organization does on an individual level in different communities?

T: We discovered outside of the community that we were not successful in the community because we are indigenous. We are not successful in the schools because we don’t have good food or good nutrition. That’s why from Chirapaq we began developing a proposal for children related to education, cultural identity and health—nutrition. These three components we are dreaming to eradicate: poverty, hunger, and malnutrition for the new generations.

MA: I was wondering, what kinds of challenges do you notice that specifically affect girls and women maybe more so than men?

T: Traditionally the indigenous family gives more opportunity to men because they think men have to develop the responsibility as chief of the family and girls don’t need any education. But I think during the last thirty years everything is changing because we know what happened outside of the community. We are trying to obtain better opportunities. And the men are changing, too, in the communities because when you ask the chief of a community in the Andes or in the Amazon, “What kind of future do you want for your girl, your daughter?”, they answer that they want a better life.

MA: It seems like a lot of the change is coming from within the community rather than outside organizations coming in.

T: It’s the combination—the articulation of the opportunities outside and doing this circle from the global to local, from local to global because if we don’t know what happened in the community, we don’t have issues to speak in the global. If we work only in the global arena, what happened with the reality in the community?

MA: It seems like communication and boosting awareness is a big part of this, and I actually read about a radio program run by the organization, which seems awesome. Can you tell me about it?

T: Yes. First of all, we know the importance of communication for the transmission of new knowledge, new opportunities. In this case, as you know, we are coming from verbal cultures. For example, I don’t know how to write in my language or how to read in my language. We want the new generation to better write and read in our proper language, in the official language. We began using radio communication because it’s very easy for us. First of all, when you give the recorder to one person in the community, they try to know what is that, after they learn how to use it and talk to other people and reproduce the conversation, it’s very easy.

MA: So everybody can hear what’s being said.

T: They try to do the best, and its very effective, radio communication. But now we are experiencing visual communication. too.

MA: Visual communication?

T: Visual communication. Young girls and boys from the community tell, for example, what happened with a family when they don’t have good products in agricultural campaign or when a girl is pregnant at thirteen or fifteen years old, and she has to quit school to take care of the baby. That’s why we think it’s very interesting to use the new media because it’s not necessary to study filmmaking. They use the initiatives and use the camera to present what they feel and what happened in the community and how they want to share these kind of problems because they want to contribute to change.

MA: I know this is a very busy week, but I just have one final question to wrap up. This event is tied to the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on Indigenous Peoples. I’m wondering, what’s your sort of takeaway from the two weeks, and also where do you hope that we’ll be in ten years? What kind of progress are you hoping to see?

T: First of all, the declaration is an important international instrument about our rights. We think that in these last ten years, many governments or states all over the world know that we are the subject of rights.  That’s the most important thing. The other thing is that in the last thirty years we began to work as women, and we developed many recommendations and many good experiences in different arenas. Ten years ago nobody believed in our rights. Now we are proud of them. We still suffer racism, discrimination, we are not in the public policies, we have problems with illiteracy all over the world. In the Americas, we are near to 50 million, and if you can see the indicators about poverty, the gap between those with rights and those without or between those who are poor and those who are not is very big. We think it’s necessary to use all these advances, instruments of rights. I was telling young girls that we arrived in New York before New Millennium – Beijing plus five – and we obtained the first recommendation in the second commission of status of women  in this context of Beijing plus five. Explaining that all indigenous women have the right to participate in the formulation of policies related to their rights or issues. That’s historic for us. We – we need to value this kind of victories.

MA: You are an incredibly inspiring woman. I’m so glad that you took the time to sit down with me on such a busy day. This is just going to be so great for our listeners to hear.

T: Thank you very much for this opportunity.




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