Adoption of CEDAW Recommendation 39: a bastion in the drive for Indigenous Women’s human rights

Without doubt, coordinated local, regional, national and international work will be key to implementing Recommendation 39 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on Indigenous Women and Girls. Within this framework, a panel discussion was held, supported by the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI), MADRE, Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI) and regional networks of Indigenous Women.

Teresa Zapeta, FIMI Executive Director, highlighted that full generations of Indigenous Women have actively taken part, from local to global level. This has enabled the adoption of General Recommendation 39.

In presenting the welcome ceremony, Ms. Zapeta paid tribute with the sacred light of all our ancestors: ‘mainly all those Indigenous Women and Girls who have dedicated their lives to building this pathway. We honour your path and existence’.

Tarcila Rivera Zea, a leading Quechua activist and coordinator of the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas, as well as head of Chirapaq and FIMI President, cited joint articulation and work in achieving shared goals as major activities.

Underlining that the process can be traced back over 40 years, she highlighted the recommendation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in 2004. This asked the CEDAW Committee to include the specific issues of Indigenous Women and was reaffirmed in 2019. Moreover, Ms. Rivera Zea stated that the most important thing is for all women around the world to be and feel part of it.

‘It is important that we celebrate the approval of this general recommendation together, with the major challenge of implementation at domestic level still remaining.’

Joan Carling, Indigenous activist from the Cordillera in the Philippines and Executive Director of IPRI, pointed out that it has taken over 15 years for CEDAW to discuss a recommendation on the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. She highlighted that the participation of women from the seven regions worldwide in the process underscores the need for recognition of their individual and collective rights, which are indivisible. She also pointed out the need to ensure Recommendation 39 includes accountability mechanisms regarding human rights violations.

‘The work of CEDAW has been essential to understanding the non-discrimination of Indigenous Women and Girls. In turn, Recommendation 39 is a milestone to understanding States parties obligations in the effective protection, intersectional nature and recognition of Indigenous Women in all their diversity’, highlighted Leonor Zalabata, member of the Arhuaco People of Colombia and the first Indigenous ambassador to the United Nations (UN). 

Ms. Zalabata also spoke about the value of ensuring respect for the right to free, prior and informed consent in environment-related policies. She celebrated that the adoption process of the recommendation recognises Indigenous Women and Girls as leaders and agents of transformation with the right to be heard. She underscored that the process is the result of the work of women’s organisations ‘connected to the land and the needs of our peoples’. 

Margaretha Karlberg Uttjek, a Sami professor, agreed on the need to implement the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls locally, regionally and nationally, underlining collective rights. Ms Karlberg spoke about the need to consider free, prior and informed Consent in Recommendation 39. She outlined the importance of including intersectional perspectives, and incorporating stories and experiences in the recommendation, as well as its implementation at all levels, despite colonial societies having discredited ancestral wisdom and knowledge.

Recommendation 39 is also an instrument to educate all people, sustained Lucy Mulenkei, FIMI Vice President, and founder and co-founder of different indigenous networks. The discrimination suffered by Indigenous Peoples and Communities comes from diverse sources and has multiple impacts. 

Ms. Mulenkei stressed the importance of ongoing debate and promoting the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. She called on using Recommendation 39 as a tool that needs to be understood by Indigenous Peoples and Communities. She also mentioned its value as a tool of inclusion for Indigenous Women in decision-making arenas such as the United Nations and the private sector. ‘Often when they look at us, they think that we have no skills, but we do. As Indigenous Women, we are pushing forward and must work together’, she asserted. 

Sonia Gutiérrez, lawyer, Guatemalan politician and Indigenous defender of human rights, highlighted the importance of Recommendation 39 as a comprehensive instrument to advance rights, and underscored that it is an inherent specific tool for Indigenous Women and Girls.

For effective implementation, Ms. Gutiérrez recommended: considering it as a bastion, a specific tool in driving human rights forward as Indigenous Women and Girls. We must take charge of this tool built by women and ensure greater articulation towards an action plan that enables actions to be implemented. The tool is also an inspiration to bolster our work and demand our rights.

The experts called on all Indigenous Women and Girls to be mindful of the implementation processes for Recommendation 39 that was adopted on 26th October 2022. They also invited them to take part with hope and strength in the coordination established for full realisation of their human rights.

*For more information on General Recommendation 39, please visit: