Indigenous Women and our Demands: From the Individual to the Collective 

After her divorce, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas returned with her son to the Tobique Reserve, in Canada, where she was originally from. Upon her return, she learned that because of her marriage to a non-indigenous person, she and her son had lost their Maliseet identity and, with it, their access to housing, health care and education. This led Lovelace Nicholas to undertake a legal battle that, after many years, marked a milestone in the fight for the rights of Indigenous Women.

Our Identity Is Collective

The indigenous identity comes from the indigenous communities or nations that preceded the colonial states, yet it is currently denied by many of those states. Despite the fact that the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes the right to self-determination, various member states of the United Nations have yet to align their constitutions with the dispositions of the Declaration. This has led to situations of exclusion and discrimination, mainly against women, as in the case of Sandra Lovelace Nicholas.

“For Indigenous Peoples, the right to self-determination is synonymous with decolonization.” Elsa Stamatopoulou, first Head of the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, explains that for Indigenous Peoples and individuals, self-determination is a human right that represents a starting point for historical reparation. 

One of the three pillars that support the United Nations Declaration is self-determination. With the recognition of this right, we reaffirm our identity as First Nations. Having a legal identity as Indigenous Peoples allows us to preserve our governance systems and ways of life, and to be participants in the construction of Well-Being. This will be achieved as long as we move within the framework of human rights. The other two pillars have to do with land and cultural rights.

Unfortunately, the non-recognition of the indigenous governance system is a form of domination by the States, keeping the Indigenous Peoples out of sight. We can witness this in the “national development strategies” based on the extraction of natural resources and their export in the form of primary products. These strategies do not respect the principle of prior, free and informed consent of our communities.

“Development” serves as a pretext to carry out projects that put our health at risk and threaten the environment. For example: oil extraction in the lower Amazon basin has caused unfathomable natural disasters in the communities of Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre, Marañón and Nazarhed. A single barrel of oil can contaminate close to 80 million litres of drinking water. In other words, the equivalent of 32 Olympic pools of oil-contaminated water flowed in the Utcubamba River because of just one barrel. This makes the water poisonous to all life forms in the river and its surroundings.

According to the indigenous worldview, the territory is a living organism that is deeply related to the harmony between community, family and people. For this reason, indigenous people do not speak of “development”, but of Well-Being, which is a way of advocating for our ancestral knowledge and our ethical principles to protect our lives. 

According to Andrea Carmen (Yaqui), International Executive Director of the Council of Indigenous Treaties, as human beings, indigenous people enjoy individual rights, but the rights to self-determination, to land, and to preserve our languages and our culture are exercised collectively. For this reason, it is important for indigenous people to talk about their individual as well as their collective rights, because our identity is collective. 

Our Individual Rights Must Also Be Respected

The recognition of our collective rights as Indigenous Women must also come with respect for our individual rights. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples indicates that the Peoples must respect the human rights of the indigenous people that make them up. In other words, indigenous identity and rights cannot and should not be imposed on anyone. Furthermore, the political duties of indigenous people, according to their system of governance, must be aligned with international human rights standards.

In this sense, Indigenous Women have spoken out against the specific discrimination we receive inside as well as outside of our territories. In fact, the Political Declaration and Action Plan of the world’s Indigenous Women, adopted at the Global Conference of Indigenous Women, refers to the limited access to education and health that we and our daughters have. It also points out that we are the ones with the highest rates of poverty and infant and maternal mortality. In this document, we also highlight that we are subject to different forms of violences, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, in contexts of human trafficking, armed conflicts, environmental and political violence, and violences inflicted by extractive industries. 

What happened in the ’60s and ’70s in Greenland is an example of this triple discrimination. At that time, the Government of Denmark decided to implant contraceptive devices in some 4,500 Indigenous Girls and Women, without their consent, to prevent the growth of the Inuit indigenous population and to promote the “modernization” of the island. This practice is considered a violation of the human rights of girls and women which, in turn, had a collective consequence for the Inuit Indigenous People. Indeed, it is estimated that during that period, pregnancies were reduced by half, from 1,674 in 1964 to 638 ten years later.

As Indigenous Women, we are aware that attempts have been made through time to dominate our peoples through our bodies. For this reason, it is important for us and for our peoples to achieve reproductive justice, so that wa can affirm our right to decide whether we want to be mothers or not, and to raise our daughters and sons in safe and healthy environments.

Standing tall, Indigenous Women follow the path laid out by Sandra Lovelace Nicholas forty years ago. Together, we fight the violences made against the land, the ancestral culture and the bodies; we defend our rights, both individual and collective. 

Inuit Women of the Arctic design strategies for collaboration between Indigenous Organizations and the UN for the implementation of CEDAW’s General Recommendation No. 39

April 20, 2023.- To strengthen the Inuit Women’s movement in the Arctic and keep an open dialogue on the implementation of CEDAW’s General Recommendation Number 39 (GR39), we met in a parallel event to the 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The event was organized by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), the Permanent Mission of Denmark in New York and the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI), with the aim of promoting the application of this binding international instrument with which States are required to protect the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Girls and Women around the world.

In his opening address, Binota Moy Dhamai, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2022–2023), a subsidiary body of the United Nations Human Rights Council, explained that GR39, which has been adopted thanks to the hard work of the Indigenous Women’s movements, recognizes the voices of girls, youth and women as agents of change and leaders inside and outside their communities.

“The General Recommendation identifies and addresses the different forms of intersectional discrimination they face, but also mandates access to justice,” Moy Dhamai said. “They have worked hard so that the plan of the Danish government to implant contraceptives to reduce the birth rate in Greenland, carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, never happens again for the Inuit Women and Girls,” she said.

Tarcila Rivera Zea, FIMI’s President, gave a brief overview of the GR39 in her speech. She recalled that different Indigenous Women’s organizations have been articulating themselves in a continental network to protect their rights over the past 30 years. “There were many international instruments that worked to guarantee equality between women and men, but a fundamental piece was still missing: an instrument that specifically addressed the protection of the rights of Indigenous Girls and Women,” she said.

Rivera Zea recognized that the implementation of the GR39 is a challenge. “The objective of the Recommendation is to guide the States to adopt relevant legislative, political and other measures to guarantee compliance with their obligations in relation to the rights of Indigenous Girls and Women. We need to strengthen the negotiation between national governments and international organizations. We need to discuss the actual implementation to see it come down from the global to the local levels, and from there fight corruption to strengthen the protection of rights and access to justice,” she explained.

Gerri Sharpe, President of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, expressed her gratitude for the dialogue that was launched at this meeting between representatives of international organizations and the Inuit women who live in the different arctic regions of the world.

“We are committed to ensuring that the human rights and priorities of Inuit women are equitably included in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Action Plan, which is now being developed by the Canadian federal government in partnership with indigenous organizations,” Sharpe stated. “GR39 will be an excellent tool for collaborative work with the different local authorities,” she added.

Tove Søvndal Gant, member of the UNPFII, recognized that there are still inequalities, structural violence, and alarming corruption rates in some of the countries that have ratified their participation in programs to protect women. “The political will of public officials will be key to adapting the recommendation to local circumstances, and to preventing dishonesty from blocking its full operation,” she said.

She further added that “the governments of Denmark and Greenland should strengthen their political cooperation and ensure that the document is translated into the respective indigenous languages, so that the inhabitants can understand it”.

Finally, talking about how to design collaboration strategies between Indigenous Organizations and the UN, which promote the implementation of GR39, Rosalee Gonzalez, co-coordinator of the northern region of the Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas de las Américas (ECMIA), explained that the most important thing is to continue strengthening the political and citizen participation of Indigenous Women at the General Assembly.

“We need to train the Indigenous Women at the UN so that we may be highly qualified and have experts in the Office of the High Commissioner who know about our needs and issues inside and outside of the indigenous territories,” she said. 

The women leaders, she said, play a very important role in monitoring and overseeing the actions implemented by the governments to guarantee effective implementation. Additionally, the women members of civil society organizations can present alternative reports to the committees, showing the gaps and challenges in the application of the recommendation that may not be mentioned in the official reports presented by the States.

Indigenous Women Discuss and Develop Strategies to Advance the Implementation of RG39

April 17, 2023.- In a parallel event to the 22nd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) at the UN headquarters in New York, Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI), the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), The Christensen Fund, The Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, the Abya Yala Indigenous Forum, and the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) came together to keep moving forward in the implementation of CEDAW’s General Recommendation number 39 (RG39), a historic achievement for Indigenous Girls and Women around the world, considering the multiple forms of discrimination we face.

The UNPFII is an advisory body that promotes the respect and full application of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In this occasion, it was a key bridge for international institutions, UN agencies and Indigenous Organizations to meet in order to continue advancing in the implementation of RG39, a legally binding human rights instrument that contemplates the different dimensions of discrimination suffered by Indigenous Women, both as women and as Indigenous People.

During the meeting’s introduction, Joan Carling, Kankana-ey Igorot activist from the Philippines and IPRI’s Executive Director, explained that the Recommendation addresses the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Women, “specifically the issues and concerns of Indigenous Women defenders, recognizing the risks and various forms of attacks that loom over them when they carry out their daily activities, seeking access to and control over their lands and natural resources”. She added that the implementation is important in that it calls on the States to guarantee that the rights defenders are not criminalized or made the target of reprisals for their work.

Tarcila Rivera Zea, Quechua woman from Peru and FIMI’s President, warned that the actual implementation of the Recommendation faces great challenges: “we must help our own organizations understand that the implementation not only benefits girls and women, but that the Indigenous Peoples as a whole can use it to push for a national policy that directly serves the communities”.

In her opening address, Arhuaca leader Leonor Zalabata Torres, Colombian ambassador to the United Nations, affirmed that “social participation in the States’ decisions plays an important role for peace, the sustainable development of the Earth, and the brotherhood and solidarity of the Peoples”. CEDAW’s Recommendation Number 39, she added, “allows us to decide how we want to live our cultures, in consensus and in unity with our realities”. Indigenous Women “have had a relevant role in this because we have been able to guarantee and preserve our ancestral wisdom and, with it, the permanence of the First Peoples”.

Gladys Acosta, former president of the CEDAW Committee, commented that “at a time when the dynamics of death seem to want to prevail, RG39 is a broad reflection on the rules of life and their prevalence”. She assured that “what we have achieved with the Recommendation, working with Indigenous Women and Organizations, is to respectfully collect the worldview, the spirituality of the Peoples and to recognize the deep connection between their rights and the communities’ territories and natural resources”. General Recommendation Number 39 “is a tool to use in our fight”, she said.

“It insists on the obligation of the member States to provide access to education, health and political participation inside and outside the communities, urging them to take measures against gender violence, including those perpetrated by the State or associated organizations,” she warned.

Nukila Evanty, Executive Director of the Women Working Group (WWG), and Rosalee González, Co-Coordinator of the Northern Region of the Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas de las Américas (ECMIA), agreed that structural racism aggravated by gender discrimination continues to be a daily reality for the Indigenous Girls and Women of the world. RG39 “responds to a permanent call from the First Peoples to create a specific instrument to promote and protect our rights. It represents a growing movement for greater inclusion while preserving the cultural identity of our peoples,” said González.

The Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, Åsa Regnér, recognized the valuable partnerships that Indigenous Organizations and Women established to achieve this strategic recommendation, noting that it is important that we all continue working on its implementation. “There is evidence that Indigenous Girls and Women are three times more likely to suffer violence than their non-indigenous counterparts. Indigenous Women defenders are even killed for protecting the rights of other women, and yet these attacks seldom make it to the headlines in the news.” “The actions that we promote, she said, should help make visible the degree of violence that is really experienced.”

Sara Olsvig, International President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), recalled when the Danish government forced the implantation of contraceptive devices on women to reduce the birth rate in Greenland. “Between 1966 and 1975, some 4,500 Inuit girls and women received an intrauterine device (IUD), often without their knowledge,” she explained. This forced family planning project violated the health of women who suffered pain, infections and difficulties getting pregnant for several years after, she said. “The recommendation that we have in our hands can help us make sure that such shameful violations of women’s bodies never happen again,” she added.

Concluding the event, Puyr Tembé, president of the Federação Estadual dos Povos Indígenas do Pará (FEPIPA), explained that despite this Brazilian Indigenous Women’s organization being relatively young, “we have managed to strengthen and multiply our voices by occupying institutional spaces that help us to create public policies that are better aligned with our needs and interests”.

“We have made significant progress in the formal recognition of our rights from within the government, and General Recommendation Number 39 is a relevant tool that recognizes us as Indigenous Women agents of change, inside and outside our communities, allowing us to reach for the full exercise of our political rights,” she concluded.

Indigenous Women open a strategic dialogue at CSW67 between key stakeholders, United Nations mechanisms and the donor community for the effective implementation of CEDAW’s GR39

March 10, 2023 – In order to strengthen the Indigenous Women’s movement and agree on a global advocacy agenda among key stakeholders, member States, allies, and United Nations mechanisms for the actual implementation of CEDAW’s General Recommendation 39 (GR39), which protects the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Girls and Women, the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI) and the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch of the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (IPDB/SPFII) held a strategic dialogue to broaden the reach of the Recommendation and to define and accelerate the next steps for its application around the world.

The event, held within the framework of the 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67), brought together Indigenous Women leaders from regional networks in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Arctic and the Pacific, government delegations, and donors with the aim of discussing the progress and gaps in the implementation of GR39, and the opportunity it represents to stop discrimination against Indigenous Women and Girls.

At the opening of the meeting, Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechua woman from Peru and FIMI’s President, insisted that the foremost challenge for the actual application of the Recommendation will be to make sure the member States create public policies that contribute to the individual and collective empowerment of Indigenous Girls and Women around the world. “The implementation will not be easy. We have worked hard and in solidarity at the local, regional and global levels, touching the hearts and minds of key decision makers to ensure the rights of women and girls are protected,” she said.

Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, Deputy Minister for Indigenous Health in Australia’s Northern Territory, declared having experienced violence firsthand as a woman. “Indigenous People, especially women, must be included at all levels of the decision-making process to reflect their strengths, knowledge and cultural identities.”

She explained that the implementation of GR39 in Australia will be done “through the creation of a permanent advisory body, which will advise Parliament on issues impacting this sector. We will be working in partnership with political actors and the donor community to achieve key economic, social and reform objectives to bridge the gaps as part of our national agreement. The authorities are determined to ensure that the Australian Parliament works together with Native Peoples to improve their lives,” she affirmed.

Haley Bathern, a young Anangu woman from Australia and a teacher at a local Indigenous Girls’ School, expressed her gratitude for this dialogue by saying, “There is no better space to promote the implementation of GR39, which will serve to maintain the connection of young women with their ancestral knowledge, work towards the recognition of their rights, and build spaces where they feel accepted, financially independent, and able to generate change in their communities.”

Joining the event remotely, Leticia Bonifazan expert from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), stated during the meeting that “it is not possible to imagine a world where the ancestral customs and worldviews of Indigenous Peoples and communities are not recognized and valued”. In this sense, she said, the Recommendation is a historical document that was generated from discussions among Indigenous Women from different parts of the world reflecting on key issues such as education, health, work, and economic empowerment. The Recommendation is built upon an intersectionnal approach, bringing together the voices of women with disabilities, LGBTI+, migrants, or those who are deprived of their freedom without knowledge of their rights.

According to Leticia Bonifaz, the most important thing will be to communicate the content of the recommendation broadly, and for the member States, through their governing bodies, to develop public policies that seek to eliminate inequalities and provide access to justice.

Rule of Law Adviser and Focal Point on indigenous issues at UN Women, Beatrice Duncan,explained that after the adoption of GR39, all member states will have four years to submit a report for the Committee to evaluate the reach of the Recommendation in the daily lives of Indigenous Women.

As she clarified, the reports will have to describe the measures taken, and the Committee may request that additional information be provided whenever it deems it necessary, in order to know how the rights affirmed in the Recommendation are being fulfilled, including collaboration strategies with Indigenous Women’s organizations at the national level.

Mariam Bouraima,from the Fulani community of Benin and a member of the African Indigenous Women’s Organization (AIWO), insisted that “member States will have to take measures to end discrimination and, through the application of GR39, involve women in decision-making spaces, as they must participate directly in the political life of their communities if they are to prevent and eradicate violence”.

Regarding how the Ford Foundation can collaborate with Indigenous Women’s movements to promote the implementation of the Recommendation, Mónica Alemán,Director of the International Program on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice, explained that to implement GR39, the Ford Foundation “will allocate greater and better resources” to Indigenous Women’s organizations and other groups, so that international norms can become local realities and not just faraway dreams. “It is important to initiate and maintain an open ongoing dialogue with the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, so as to keep identifying new partners for the allocation of financial resources.”

She said that “one of the decisions we have made is to also provide political support to the movements of Indigenous Women that we support financially”. This opens an important opportunity for organizations that already receive support from the Foundation to co-participate actively in the dialogues and decide which direction to take with their partners or other donors.

In her intervention, Erika Unnis, from the Saami Women’s Forum, stated that although there have been several earlier international agreements aimed at protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples in general, and of Indigenous Women in particular, there are still regulatory gaps that keep blocking their access to food security, to the natural resources of their communities, and to their cultural identities. All of this is manifested through the ongoing dispossession of their languages, lands, territories and natural resources. However, GR39 represents “a new starting point for all women fighting for the defence of these rights, living in rural or urban areas alike, to be aware of all the legal and administrative resources they can rely on”.

According to Eleanor Dictaan-Bang-oa, Kankanaey Igorot woman from the Philippines, from the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network (AIWN), the Recommendation includes important reflections on the issues of equality and non-discrimination, with special attention to the intersecting forms of discrimination. “As Indigenous Girls and Women, we experience intersectional forms of violences that are embedded into the very structures of the colonizing States, systematically affecting our ability to exercise our individual and collective rights,” she highlighted.

Patricia Torres Sandovala Purhépecha leader from Mexico and founder of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Women (CONAMI-Mexico), warned that the efficient and effective implementation of the Recommendation will require “political will and an adequate allocation of funds from the States and the donor community, so that programs and policies, developed based on the needs of Indigenous Girls and Women around the world, can be built collaboratively”.

Nadine GasmanPresident of the National Institute for Women (INMUJERES), recognized that the biggest challenge for the different governments will be to ensure GR39 is made available in the languages of the Peoples and communicated broadly to the communities so that more women may take ownership of this tool for the protection of their rights from childhood.

“The full institutional adoption of the Recommendation is key to achieve its effective application in institutions at all levels, whether federal, local, municipal and national. At INMUJERES, we are going to support this process to keep guaranteeing the full participation of Indigenous Women and Girls as protagonists within their communities as well as outside.”

Finally, Gladys Acosta, former president of the CEDAW Committee, pointed out that this strategic dialogue highlighted the enormous potential of the recommendation in itself, specifying that “the bulk of the responsibility to communicate GR39 in all languages through all the channels falls on the member States”. She also stated that this international instrument would have to be adopted by women’s organizations, institutions and key political actors in a collaborative and coordinated manner.

Indigenous Women urge the effective implementation of CEDAW General Recommendation 39 and the construction of a digital age with cultural relevance and gender equality

March 6, 2023.- To guarantee that the principles of inclusion and intersectionality guide technological innovation and reduce discrimination and gender inequalities, within the framework of the 67th session of the Commission on the Legal and Social Condition of Women (CSW67 ) at the UN, the Coordination Meeting of Indigenous Women organized by the International Forum of Indigenous Women (FIMI) was held in parallel.

CSW67 is the main international body dedicated exclusively to the promotion of gender equality and the development of international norms that promote the empowerment of women. This year will also be a fundamental space to amplify our voices and fight for the effective implementation of CEDAW General Recommendation Number 39 (RG39), a binding international instrument for the protection of the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Girls and Women around the world. .

In the event we gather leaders from different regions, who reflect on our objectives, achievements, gaps and pending challenges in the promotion and protection of our rights. During the reflection, we discussed the obligation that the States Parties assumed to develop and implement comprehensive policies that effectively protect the rights and principles of substantive equality and non-discrimination, and we agreed on the urgency for Indigenous Girls and Women to participate in the construction of a digital age that narrows gender gaps and promotes inclusive technological innovation ecosystems that eliminate violence.

The gathering began with a spiritual ceremony led by Malia Nobrega-Olivera, an Indian from the Hanapēpē Valley, Kona, Kaua’i in Hawaii, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement for the School of Hawaiian Knowledge, and the Loli Aniau, Makaala Aniau program. (THE MA).

During her participation, Tarcila Rivera Zea, Quechua from Peru, President of FIMI, gave a warm welcome and recalled that the origin of the International Forum of Indigenous Women, made up of organizations from seven socio-cultural regions, is based on meetings that we have maintained since 1995 during the signing of the Beijing Declaration of Indigenous Women, “laying the foundations for our claims as indigenous people and as women,” she said.

Today, more than 30 years later, the articles with which we then “defined our rights and positions as Indigenous Women, are still more valid than ever to recover, share, reflect and continue projecting our aspirations globally,” said Tarcila Rivera Zea.

In a video broadcast during the event, Lucy Mulenkei, Masai from Kenya, Co-Founder and Vice President of FIMI, said that the meeting will be important because “we will hear diverse voices that will inform our experience working on issues that impact Indigenous Women and Indigenous Peoples in general”.

Teresa Zapeta Mendoza, Maya K’iche from Guatemala, Director of FIMI, recognized the strategic alliances that have been made over time to achieve common historical purposes among Indigenous Women from different regions, despite violence and inequalities. “This year, in addition to discussing together the challenges we face in the digital age to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, we are celebrating the approval of RG39, which is a bridge to ensure our rights.”

“The General Recommendation is a historical fact that not only favors Indigenous Women and Girls, but also the human rights of Indigenous Peoples around the world,” she insisted.

The participating sisters recognized that governments must assume responsibilities and commitments in the fight against violence, and we named some demands and actions to move forward with civil society and other key actors to implement technological solutions that allow empowerment and the transformation of roles and social norms. traditional; promote the access that Indigenous Women have to digital technologies in rural and non-rural areas to reduce inequalities; strengthen, through digital education, feeling, living and thinking as women belonging to Original Peoples; eliminate technological gaps to guarantee the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls with disabilities so that they know the international instruments that protect them; understand that the installation of a digital infrastructure, especially in rural areas, is not the solution to achieve connectivity for all because it is necessary, they said, to learn what limits women in managing technology and generate adoption and use strategies close to users and their communities; Generate and promote access to information on digital violence or cybercrimes against young people and Indigenous Women.

Finally, Teresa reiterated that the articulation of women has been essential for the adoption of CEDAW General Recommendation 39, and assured that this is a unique opportunity to integrate the collective priorities, worldview, experiences and lessons shared by the women. Indigenous Women to achieve transformative change and guarantee the preservation of different cultures and our individual and collective identities.

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:

From the land to the body: forms of violence and discrimination against Indigenous Women

Indigenous Women face diverse forms of violence arising from the dispossession and breakdown of the social bond of their communities. The solution provided by the CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls is holistic, crosscutting and intersectional.

It took Helena Steenkamp ten years to gather the courage and admit that she had been raped in her community. Her abuser was an outsider to the community who used to come for work and he was only prosecuted after 6 years. In the ‡Khomani San Indigenous community —which inhabits the Kalahari Desert land located on the border between South Africa and Botswana—, the case of Helena is not the exception but the rule. Social decomposition, caused by constant displacements and years of exploitation of ancestral land, has created a context of violence that has a particular impact on the bodies of Indigenous Women and Girls. San women face discrimination and violence both within and outside of their communities, carried out by those who want them to be weak and quiet. But if the perpetrator is inside and outside the home, how can a woman protect herself?

Within the communities, fear to publicly admit to having been sexually abused and fear of losing their husband’s support, dissuade women from reporting the case to the authorities. “Being able to talk about it requires having an introspection process and building up courage,” Helena says, “it took me a long time to be myself again and regain confidence.” Steenkamp managed to get over it thanks to the strength she acquired from lifting up her community and having to impose herself in a space dominated by men. “If women do not take the lead, we will not see any change or progress,” she concludes. 

The CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls provides a legal framework that may serve as a shield in the face of the State’s inaction, as in the case of South Africa. However, Helena Steenkamp acknowledges that women need first to be empowered, know their rights and learn how to use these international instruments to create a real change that puts an end to discrimination and violence against Indigenous Women. 

The San People: a story of territorial and cultural dispossession

The San People, which Helena belongs to, descend from ancestral hunter-gatherer communities considered to be the first ones who inhabited the southern tip of the African continent, also called Bushmen. Due to the migration of other peoples, such as the Khoekhoe or the Bantu, the San People were expelled to the more remote and desert areas, although there was also some mixing among the different communities. 

Colonization brought dispossession of lands that were the home of the San and the exploitation of natural resources on which these people relied for its subsistence. This increased competition and rivalry among the Indigenous communities themselves and destroyed the social fabric, livelihoods and cultural identity of the San People. Only a few communities survived, which pushed the San People to be on the verge of extermination. 

Acts of violence are wounds from the past

Nowadays, the San communities have lost their original names and there are only five persons who speak the N|u ancestral language. Helena Steenkamp went looking for them in the Lost Tongues documentary. In 1999, the ‡Khomani San reclaimed part of the land that was taken from them thanks to a long process of struggle and to the new legal framework of the post-apartheid government. However, the return of the territory did not bring about the change that everyone was longing for. 

“At first, we were all excited to have got our ancestral land back again. I left my job in Cape Town to come here, to Andriesvale, and create change in my community. But in the past ten years, everything has worsened. Without the knowledge on how to handle the land, we did not know what to do with it,” Helena says. With high rates of unemployment and low levels of education, and without the required capabilities to generate new economic activities, many persons in the community fell into substance abuse. There are even some who remember the apartheid as being good years, where there was employment at the farms of the whites and parents could take their children to school. 

Helena grew up among parents who fought constantly, heavy alcohol and drug consumption, and girlfriends with early pregnancies. This violence cycle is reproduced generation after generation. In order to overcome this narrative of discouragement, Steenkamp and other community members created a visual project that intends to revert the paternalist and colonialist representation of Indigenous communities. With the advice of the Market Photo Workshop, she photographed young pregnant women. “The girls and mothers had a very positive reaction, something I was not expecting. Our community is always seen from the outside. We constantly receive people who come to investigate us and take pictures of us. For the first time, the story was told by someone from the inside,” she explains. 

The representation of Indigenous communities as a form of violence

The dispossession of the Indigenous communities’ identity has been historically accompanied by images that demonize, dehumanize or exoticize them. Indigenous women of the Caribbean are probably the most hypersexualized female bodies in history. At present, countries devoted to the Catholic religion —inherited from the missionary colonialism— forbid women to abort even in cases of malformation or health risks for the mother; while the most popular songs on the radio objectify and sexualize women. 

“The hypersexualization of the Taíno Woman is an offense that threatens our lives,” strongly states Tai Pelli, an Indigenous woman leader of Taíno of Borikén, the original name of the island of Puerto Rico. “They take symbols that are sacred to us and use them in a vulgar manner, in a message that perpetuates the image of Caribbean women as instruments of pleasure who may be abused”, she reiterates with a claiming passion and energy that inspires not to take any step back. 

Colonization put an end to the matrilineal structure of Taíno Peoples, which granted women a position of respect and equality between genders. “Now women are taking the lead again,” Tai adds, and she points out the global spaces that are being created to promote gender equality. “But in order to achieve it we must take our voices there, go back to our Indigenous roots and values and create a model that renders the other one obsolete,” she concludes. 

Intersectionality of violence

Unlike the San People, the Taíno Communities dispersed across the Lesser and Greater Antilles have not been able to reclaim the land and territory that were taken away from them by different imperialist States. Puerto Rico is one of the most emblematic cases, as it continues being an unincorporated territory of the United States. “We are the people with more experience in being colonized, but that does not mean that we have abandoned our connection to the land,” Tai warns. Some say that Indigenous Peoples are nothing without land. Although it is true that land is the basis of Indigenous identity —and its expropriation causes a great deal of violence that has a profound impact on Indigenous Women and Girls—, Tai Pelli defends the community identity and organization even when there is no land of their own to set foot on. “Even if we do not have it, we continue loving and defending it from the violence it suffers. Such responsibility must be awakened; we are the earth!” she concludes. Indeed, the CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls takes into account such intersectionality of violence from the land to the body, in order to end it.

We, Indigenous Women, are part of the solution against climate change

Although we have been historically marginalized from the decision-making spaces, our inputs as guardians of biodiversity must be included in climate action. The CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls is a key instrument to achieve it at a national and international level.

The Himalayan mountains melt and cause heavy rainfall and floods. Rising sea levels flood the Pacific Islands. Drought opens the soil and withers orchards in East Africa; fires and deforestation destroy Amazon trees. Climate crisis affects us all, women and men, but not equally. 

We, Indigenous Women and Girls, depend on Mother Earth to survive. In her, we find the food to nourish and cure our families, the materials to build our houses and the water to drink and clean ourselves. Moreover, some of us live in territories that are more vulnerable to extreme weather events. “Our burdens are multiple, but our support is crucial,” emphasizes Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, of the Kankana-ey Igorot community in the Philippines and former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

However, we, Indigenous Women, have been historically marginalized from the decision-making and political participation spheres where solutions are sought and policies and financing are established to stop climate change. “Although there has been progress in the past 40 years, we need to have a greater presence in international spaces so that our specific needs are recognized and our capabilities are considered as part of the solution,” claims Tarcila Rivera Zea, Quechua activist and Executive President of the FIMI. 

Indigenous Peoples protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity

According to the UN, Indigenous Peoples protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity and many communities live in megadiverse countries.  Due to the cultural and spiritual connection we keep with the land, Indigenous Peoples are also guardians of nature and show collective leadership in its protection and defense

Within this framework, we, Indigenous Women, play a crucial role as guardians and practitioners of ancestral knowledge, and as creators of new environmental sustainability proposals. “We preserve native seeds, biodiversity and food security, and the wellbeing of our communities,” explains Naw Ei Ei Min, Indigenous Woman of Myanmar and Member of the Executive Council of the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP). 

Impact of climate change and environmental violations against Indigenous territories

Indigenous Women and Peoples not only face the impacts of climate change, but also the expropriation and exploitation of our lands and natural resources resulting from the progress of extractive companies in the name of economic development. 

For example, Indigenous communities in Nepal —the 10th country most affected by climate change during the past 20 years— are facing the melting of the Himalayas at an unprecedented rate. In turn, this phenomenon is causing a radical change in the rainfall cycle. “We no longer differentiate between winter and summer. Now, we have the Monsoon all year round, which generates heavy flooding at the river bank where Indigenous communities live,” warns Pratima Gurung, academic and Indigenous activist of Nepal, specialized in Indigenous Peoples’ human rights, gender and disabilities, and General Secretary of the National Indigenous Disabled Women Association-Nepal (NIDWAN) and of the Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network (IPWDGN).

On the other hand, the expropriation of Indigenous lands for the construction of hydroelectric plants and the intensive use of pesticides have worsened the amount and quality of water. All of this has a devastating impact on Indigenous Women, particularly on those fellow women with disabilities. “The scarcity of nutritious food and potable water has an impact on our health and hygiene. This causes a greater prevalence of persons with diverse disabilities in our communities,” Gurung adds. Thus, Pratima calls not only for Indigenous Women to be clearly mentioned in the agreements for climate action, but also Indigenous Women with Disabilities.  

Lessons learned and good practices for sustainable development

In Aotearoa (New Zealand), indigenous communities also face the impacts of climate change and deforestation, which jeopardize access to water and other natural resources. In order to address these challenges, indigenous communities of Aotearoa are producing books and e-tools based on Māori traditional ecological knowledge and biocultural health indicators, with the aid of Tui Shortland, Director of Awatea Organics and Member of the Executive Committee of Cultural Survival, specialising in traditional knowledge of biological diversity. Māori live connected to water from birth, they consider water to be a living being resulting from the love between Father Sky and Mother Earth. When fighting for their rights, the Māori have achieved the inclusion of their indigenous cosmovisions in regional policies on the management of water, which are now more respectful of natural water cycles. This allows for protecting the environment and ecosystem biodiversity.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Women all the way from Africa to the Arctic are becoming pioneers in environmental agriculture and environmental sustainability. For example, Molly Bella Akelo, Director of Fountain of Life Uganda, along with her fellow Indigenous women have implemented the use of organic pesticides and fertilizers, Indigenous irrigation methods and tree growing to combat drought. 

Recommendations for the full inclusion and participation of Indigenous Women in climate action

We, Indigenous Women, claim our full inclusion and participation in the decision-making and preparation of public policies for climate action. For such a purpose, a greater presence of Indigenous Women is required in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66), which, in 2022 is dedicated to climate change; as well as in spaces, such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference. It is precisely in these forums where we must be considered as guardians of the planet’s biodiversity, and where our inputs and knowledge must be included as part of the solution.

At the same time, it is essential that the financing set forth in the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change reaches Indigenous Women and their communities, in view that we face numerous barriers to obtain economic support. These barriers include the use of colonialist languages and western banking systems, compliance with requirements impossible to be fulfilled for the registration of our organizations and implementation of programs, and lack of support.

As a result, Indigenous Women have been fighting for years so that our rights are recognized at both the international and national levels. Today, we are in the final stretch of a collective path that reaches its turning point with the preparation of a CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. It will be key that this Recommendation includes concepts of environmental justice that guarantee our rights to land, territories and natural resources. This will force the States Parties to comply with the free, prior and informed consent, and to include us in the national public policies for an effective action. “If we were given the space we are entitled to, the world would be different, with a broad, collective circular and diverse vision,” emphasizes Teresa Zapeta Mendoza, of the Maya K’iche’ People of Guatemala and Executive Director of the FIMI. 

We may only visualize a different world with the inputs of the Indigenous Peoples and Women. A world where forests and water are preserved and Mother Earth is respected; an environment where solidarity prevails over private profit, the community prevails over the person and diversity prevails over cultural assimilation that creates falsely homogeneous societies. 

Four keys for Indigenous Women to benefit from the CEDAW

Understanding the CEDAW; influencing the reports from State Parties with inputs from Indigenous Women organizations and preparing shadow reports; participating in sessions; and promoting General Recommendation No. 39 on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. Four fundamental steps to take ownership of this instrument for change.

Discrimination moves forward on our bodies, our loved ones and our land, but we, Indigenous Women and Girls, come together to face it. We resort to ancestral knowledge and turn ourselves into agents of change. We combat gender-based violence; we cure physical and spiritual diseases; we produce food and reclaim traditional medicine; we protect Mother Earth, animals and plants, because we may live in harmony thanks to them. However, oftentimes, ancestral knowledge and the collective struggle t need to be accompanied by international legal instruments to support them. The CEDAW, which is mandatory for its States Parties, is an essential instrument, as it proposes that women and girls may fully exercise their rights and freedoms. 

How can we, Indigenous Women and Girls, benefit from the CEDAW?  Here are four keys to do so. 

  1. Understand what the CEDAW is, an international Convention to demand respect for the rights of women and protect them against discrimination.

The CEDAW is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It is the only binding international instrument that specifically protects the rights of all women. The CEDAW Committee is formed by 23 independent expert women of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Europe/Central Asia and Middle East/Northern Africa regions. It receives reports from the State Parties, communications from persons or groups who submit reports or claims on systematic violations to the rights of women.  In addition, the Committee may open investigations, if the State so allows. 

This international committee also makes general recommendations that must be taken into consideration in the national laws or other approaches to respect the rights of women and girls. General Recommendation No. 39, which is about to be adopted, addresses Indigenous Women and Girls.

  1. Know in advance which States will submit reports in the next CEDAW Committee session and, if our country is convened, participate in the preparation of reports.

At each session, the CEDAW usually invites eight State Parties. The Committee suggests that they consult national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and women associations in the preparation of their report. Through our organizations, Indigenous Women and Girls may exert pressure so that the States take into account our situation in such documents and implement national policies that promote honoring the Convention. 

If the State fails to take us into consideration in the document produced, we may prepare a parallel or shadow report that outlines the actual problems affecting Indigenous Women and Girls in regard to the breach of the Convention and include specific recommendations for the change. 

  1. Attend the Geneva session and advocate for inclusion of Indigenous Women by means of policies and programs.

The CEDAW Committee invites NGOs to provide oral information in the public meeting; this option may be availed by Indigenous Women. It is about lobbying, influencing decision makers so that they may intervene in public policies. 

We, Indigenous Women, understand the art of lobbying; our interventions, filled with stories, images and experiences, usually have a persuasive force with an impact on public opinion in various spheres. By lobbying, we may go from a mere claim to a concrete proposal for a solution.

When taking part at the Committee sessions, Indigenous Women and Girls will notify the States how our communities are affected by the lack of compliance with the Convention. In addition, we will provide sustainable solutions to face such problems.

In these sessions, we, Indigenous Women, may highlight why a General Recommendation is required to demand the States to incorporate policies that guarantee our individual and collective human rights as Indigenous Women and Girls. 

  1. Keep a close watch on future steps and add more voices to promote the CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls.

Indigenous Women have struggled and continue making our   rights visible individually and collectively. We believe that we can accomplish more if we are informed and united. Upon its adoption, the Recommendation will be transformed into a strategic instrument for this fight. Therefore, regional organizations and networks are joining in an effort to disseminate it, through the campaign.

Add your signature to promote the adoption of the Recommendation.

We are not alone: how can we promote the fight of Indigenous Women based on General Recommendation No. 39

It is important to disseminate the General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls through different means; to approach the different levels of governments with its legal backing and take into account both for urgent issues as well as for more in-depth demands.

At a warm and meaningful reunion, we interviewed Gladys Acosta Vargas, chairperson of the CEDAW Committee, on the General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. Gladys, who has been an ally of the Indigenous Women movement for many years, explained that it is a process to construe the Convention articles and their binding force. Upon its adoption, the interlocution capacity will be broadened between the Committee and the State Parties for their compliance with their international obligations to the indigenous communities. In this context, Acosta Vargas explained: “General Recommendations do not add any rights, as these are included in the Convention, but they go deeper on how they must be protected.”

According to Acosta Vargas, for a Recommendation to be effectively applied, it is required to disseminate it in all possible ways: languages, codes, images, videos. The dissemination must take into consideration persons with disabilities, who need to find out about the progress achieved in terms of Human Rights. During our conversation, she pointed out that not only should State Parties take part in the dissemination of content, but also civil society NGOs and mass media, whether public or private. 

In addition to protecting Indigenous Women and Girls who live within their territories, the countries must also protect those who are in transit (due to migration or for any other reason), because it is a right.

For Acosta Vargas, achieving changes means taking action before the State branches. On one hand, the Executive branch, because all public policies of all areas are drafted there, and before the Legislative and Judicial branches, which complement it. On the other hand, before the regional and municipal governments, as they are directly responsible for changes at a local level. 

As an example of the possible actions, she explained that, in case of violation to the rights of Indigenous Women, the CEDAW and the specific articles of the General Recommendation should be cited, explaining what Indigenous Women experience in their daily lives and their struggles. Thus, in any controversy or dispute, even with private parties, the State will ensure that their rights are not violated. 

Regarding this type of actions, Acosta stated: “The Convention is growing stronger, thanks to the women’s fights, because its strength does not arise from it, but from those who use it and turn it into an instrument of struggle.” As they are directly applicable standards, the protection organizations, including Indigenous Women organizations, must learn how to use them in their long term and immediate fights.

The chairperson of the CEDAW Committee considers that the adoption of such General Recommendation responds to a debt that the world owes to Indigenous Women and Girls for the atrocities they have suffered. 

This Recommendation is emerging and was developed in spite of the hard work during the pandemic. “The dialogue started in 2017 and we are about to adopt it in 2022, because it responds to the increasing struggle for a greater visibility of Indigenous Women and Girls in the field of international politics,” she added.

To close the interview, Gladys Acosta highlighted that the Recommendation provides for the connection with nature, the respect to human beings and a powerful spirituality not only for Indigenous Peoples, but also for everyone. As such, this instrument will also be useful to defend our territories from violence and dispossession.

“One thing is to fight knowing that rights are on your side, and another thing is to keep fighting simply because an injustice is taking place,” Acosta Vargas expressed. Finally, our voices are beginning to be heard.