Confronted with multiple acts of violence, Indigenous Women fight for their lives, their culture and land sovereignty

Although the UN recognizes the right to self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, the States systematically infringe it. The CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls may become the binding instrument that obliged the States to respect such rights.


Aida Quilcué —Indigenous woman leader of the Nasa People and senator of the Republic of Colombia— woke up on the morning of March 15, 2022 with a grieving heart for sad news. Her comrade in arms Miller Correa, counselor of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, a political and social organization that gathers Indigenous communities of such region, which is located in Southern Colombia, was murdered. “They have been killing us and continuing to kill us. It is part of the millenary dispossession, exclusion and cultural extermination we suffer as Indigenous Peoples. Hence the need to defend ourselves and build self-governance processes that, to date, keep us within the survival framework,” Quilcué comments with the voice tone and serene gaze of someone who carries inside of her the suffering of an entire people. 


On the other side of the Pacific, in Guam —the largest island of Micronesia—, Terilynn Francisco represents the living memory of her Chamorro grandfathers and grandmothers. They survived the Spanish occupation, Second World War, the Japanese concentration camps and the reconquest by the United States, which continues controlling the island. “We have an intergenerational trauma, as our communities have been exposed to so much violence and our land has seen too many wars. We need to reclaim our cultural identity and traditional practices in order to understand who we are and who we want to be,” Terilynne Francisco emphasizes, with the sweet and compelling voice of a young spirit who longs for change. 


Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination, whereby they may autonomously choose their political condition as a collective, their cultural identity and their forms of economic and social development by means of their own institutions. However, many times the States violate such right recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Such violations range from preventing a girl to be named with an Indigenous name, hindering the development of intercultural health or educational systems, encroaching on Indigenous lands recognized by law or failing to comply with the right to free, prior, and informed consent. 


With the intention of putting an end to these violations to the Indigenous Peoples’ rights and actively participating in the political and social development of their communities, Indigenous Women all over the world are contributing to the drafting of a specific CEDAW General Recommendation for Indigenous Women and Girls, that may be used as a binding instrument for the States to respect the right to self-determination, among other rights.


Guam: a people deprived of its collective power and identity


“We were one of the first Indigenous Peoples to be colonized and one of the few that is still occupied. For centuries, we have been caught in the authority dynamics of colonial powers,” explains Terilynn Francisco, member and founder of the Chamorro Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan women association. The island of Guam has been  under the control of the United States as an unincorporated territory since 1950. Guam is also one of the 17 non-self-governing territories supervised by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Its inhabitants —although being considered as United States citizens— may not vote at federal elections, nor have access to state social security, nor decide their own future as a people. “We are second-class citizens,” Teri concludes.


The United States maintains the occupation of the island mainly due to its strategic military position in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. One-third of the ancestral lands of the Chamorro People has been occupied by military bases, in violation of the prior consent and without the families receiving any compensation whatsoever. Meanwhile, the military presence of the United States continues to increase. “Our land and our people are paying a very heavy price,” acknowledges Teri, who is also a social worker and mental health professional at the Mariana Islands. 


Teri relates this structural violence to the high rates of gender-based violence, suicides and substance abuse in the communities of the Chamorro People. “Colonization put an end to our healing practices and ways to relate to one another. We are a people deprived of power and collective identity,” she says sadly. 


In 2011, the Chamorro People of Guam wanted to hold a non-binding plebiscite to explore its political future as a people. However, after a legal process that has lasted ten years, the plebiscite was rejected by a local court in Guam and by the U.S. Supreme Court, with the excuse that it would be discriminatory for the non-Indigenous population who could not vote. “We are not even allowed to have a dialogue with ourselves,” Teri complains. 


After this debacle against the Chamorro People, Teri and her fellow women are committed to restoring the collective identity and reclaiming the traditional healing practices of the Chamorro People. “We, Indigenous Women, are the caregivers of our families and we need to take leadership to be empowered again as a people,” she affirms. Teri believes that, even though the U.S. has not ratified the CEDAW and, therefore, the General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls will not be binding, it may serve to forge alliances and increase international pressure so that the U.S. recognizes the right to self-determination of the Chamorro People in Guam. 


Colombia: a State that recognizes but fails to respect


“In Colombia, the norm has never been respected. First, we had to conquer our rights, because rights are not given, but fought for and demanded. And now, for them to be enforced, we must continue to mobilize, as war persists,” explains the Colombian senator Aida Quilcué.


Although the 1991 Colombian Political Constitution recognizes the right to self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, the Colombian State has systematically violated such right, even in a post-conflict context. After 50 years of civil war and the execution of the Peace Agreements in 2016, the Cauca Department, the second region with more Indigenous population, has not seen peace yet. As it is a strategic passage for drugs and natural resource area, this region continues suffering high levels of violence, particularly against the Indigenous communities that protect the territory.


According to the Indepaz report, in 2021, 171 leader men and women were exterminated in Colombia, of which 55 were Indigenous and 31 were murdered in Cauca. This trend has been on the rise since 2017, one year after the agreements were signed. In 2020, for the second year in a row, Colombia was the most dangerous country for defending Human Rights


In this regard, the only effective solution for Quilcué is to reconfigure the system from the inside. Although she recognizes that the CEDAW General Recommendation may force the Colombian State to respect such rights, “we need to change the government in order to change the forms,” she concludes. “And that is precisely what we are doing,” she clarifies. 


Quilcué became a senator after a process that was devised for years, but that culminated in April 2021 with an unprecedented social outburst and national strike for “the right to life”. The mobilization went from the streets to the polls thanks to an alliance among the Indigenous Peoples and other communities that have been historically excluded. “That is why they are killing us, because we fight for the country to wake up and move forward,” Aida Quilcué concludes. 


How to become an Indigenous woman leader: the experience of Lea Nicholas-MacKenzie 

Lea Nicholas-MacKenzie, also known as  “Warrior Princess” has fought all her life to defend Indigenous Women’s rights at the national and international levels. She considers the CEDAW General Recommendation to be the instrument with the power to put pressure on the States for an actual and effective change.

On July 19, 1979, over a hundred Indigenous Women and children of the Tobique First Nation in Canada started a 160 km march that caught the eye of hundreds of people. Armed with red banners and signs, these relentless women marched through lakes, forests and rivers from the Kanesatake lands to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa to protest a Canadian law known as the Indian Act, which was discriminatory against Indian Women. The XIX century law set forth that if an Indian Woman married a non-Indian man, she and her children would lose their Indian status.

The participants of this historical march included a young girl, Lea Nicholas, who was accompanying her mother, a political activist of the Indian Rights for Indian Women organization. This was the first time she fought for defending Indigenous Women’s rights. “I remember feeling inspired by those courageous women devoted to raising awareness,” she explains. 

The protesters achieved having the Minister of Indian Affairs of Canada meet with them as political actors, which was unusual at the time. Finally, in 1985, they succeeded in having the government approve a bill to amend the Indian Act. From an early age, Lea learned that if you fight in unity for the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Women, great success may be achieved. Her political advocacy career at a national and international level would lead her to earn the name “Warrior Princess.” 

The Wəlastəkwey People in Canada

Lea  grew up among trees, snow and frozen rivers, surrounded by her cousins, uncles and aunts. She spent the day amid a lush nature, catching rabbits, walking with snowshoes or collecting the famous maple syrup. But underneath this idyllic childhood image, lies a condition of poverty, lack of opportunities and dispossession of the Wəlastəkwey People —also known as Maliseet—, to which Lea belongs. 

The Wəlastəkwey People are part of the First Nations in Canada, composed of 635 communities, representing more than 50 distinct nations and linguistic groups. Its name makes reference to the beautiful Wəlastəkw River and emphasizes the relationship between its members and the natural space they inhabit. Before colonization, they were found in the geographical territory between Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine. “This was our land, but colonizers imposed borders. They saw no Wəlastəkwey land or territory,” Lea explains. In 1725 and 1779, Great Britain signed the Peace and Friendship Treaties with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. However, such treaties were hardly ever honored and the British continued using colonial practices to dehumanize Indigenous Peoples. “But they failed to eliminate us entirely,” Lea remarks.

The power of education: a horror story for Indigenous Peoples of Canada

Education was a crucial requirement in the Nicholas family. Although grandmother Nicholas could not attend school off-reserve, she fought so that her  sons, daughters and grandchildren could have that opportunity. This high level of education among Indigenous families was completely unusual back in those days, as the Indian Act promoted an educational system for Indigenous children, whose purpose was cultural assimilation and genocide. 

Between 1894 and 1947, attendance at Indian Residential Schools was mandatory and it is one of the darkest episodes in Canadian history. Numerous physical, psychological and sexual abuses have been documented and it is estimated that between 10,000 and 50,000 Indigenous boys and girls disappeared. Through September 2021, more than 1,300 bodies have been found in unmarked graves across the sites of five such residential schools. 

MacKenzie attended an Indian Day School. “There was a lot of abuse that was similar to Residential Schools; for example, we were not allowed to speak in our own language, but at least at night we went back home to our families,” she explains. That is the reason why for Lea it is not only important to have access to education, but also to exert control over it.

The experience of the Mi’kmaw People in Nova Scotia depicts how an intercultural education may be key for the development of Indigenous communities. Since 1999, a governing law grants the Mi’kmaw People the decision power over the language, history, identity and contents of the curriculum. This system enables the graduation rate for indigenous young students who conclude their education to be 90%, while, in the rest of the country, such rate is around 40% or 25% in the worst-case scenarios.  

From national to international political advocacy

Thanks to her education and to a degree in French Language and Linguistics, Lea could leave her community in search of new opportunities. The price she paid was living far away from her roots. Her first job was with the Canadian government, at the Department of Indian Affairs, focused on Lands and Environment. According to Lea, this was an opportunity to know the system from the inside, although she could not do much to change it. “I was too young and did not know how to fight for Indigenous Peoples’ rights in a system that works against them. So, I left.” 

Her next step was as Chief of Staff at the Assembly of First Nations. “There, I became a true activist,” she recognizes. In 1998, she was sent to take part at the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York. “We did not know how to use the United Nations in order to advance our rights. There were only three Indigenous Women participating and we hardly had the chance to speak. We were discriminated against by many in the feminist movement, and that made us realize the importance of having our own voice,” she explains. 

After that event, Tarcila Rivera Zea, a Quechua Indigenous woman leader of Peru and current President of the FIMI, invited her to organize the preparatory event for the Beijing +5. Lea and the rest of the team members were able to bring more than 100 Indigenous Women to New York and train them on how to use the United Nations instruments to make their voices heard and promote their rights. FIMI’s Global Leadership School, which will be implementing its ninth edition, came to life from that event. 

Recommendations to make our voices heard

20 years after this historical event, the global movement of Indigenous Women has managed to initiate a CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. Even though there are already some United Nations instruments that recognize the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the human rights of Indigenous Peoples must be included in all instruments, including Conventions such as CEDAW. “Indigenous Women may use them to defend their rights at a State level. That is why it is so important,” she concludes. 

However, taking part in these decision-making spheres —where Indigenous Women are not welcome— has not been easy at all. “We must enter the room as our ancestors did, who fought for our rights. Because of them, I feel I can face any challenge that may arise,” she explains. 

It is also important for Lea to have courage, although this does not mean “not being afraid, but not letting fear stop you.” After years of political advocacy work at a local, national and international level, Lea  has found the best formula to make the person sitting across the table listen: finding solutions. “You have to be persuasive, not aggressive. Pounding the table will be of no use. When facing a problem, the best thing to do is to propose how to solve it,” she concludes.

Land defenders, guardians of the culture and identity of Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Women are criminalized for defending the land of their communities from dispossession and exploitation by the States and companies. The CEDAW General Recommendation provides for a legal framework that protects Indigenous Women and guarantees their rights to land.

Since she was a youth, Joan Carling, an Indigenous woman leader of the Philippines, understood that the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and land is special. Joan grew up in a mixed community with Indigenous and non-Indigenous families; thus, she could see the differences between her community and the rest of the Philippine society. For the Kankanaey, the Indigenous community of the Northern area of the Cordillera in the Philippines, to which she belongs, land is collective and inherited equally by men and women. Forests are subject to collective norms and people help each other during times of crisis. Land is not a mere natural resource or a commodity, but it is the basis of the culture, identity, wellbeing and cohesion of the community, a concept that brings Indigenous Peoples together from America to Asia.

When Carling was a child, the pine forest was her playground. “During my childhood, we hung up from trees, we collected pine cones to gather pine nuts  for the community pine trees nursery , and we hunted  for mushrooms on rainy days,” she explains with the voice of someone who remembers happy times. But soon, she understood that if she did not fight and defend the land, it would be taken away from the traditional custodians, as her community lived in a gold-rich region. The company that exploited the forest where she grew up was the same one that had expropriated an area of collective land to extract gold and copper. The land had been completely destroyed: the underground water and rivers were polluted and the unstable land due to mining activities would collapse at their feet. 

During her college years, Carling spent  two months of summer with  the  Kalinga tribal villages which successfully defended their territories from the construction of four hydro dams that would destroy their livelihoods. Although resistance came along with blood and imprisonments, the Kalinga People managed to stop the dam. This marked a milestone in the defense of lands for Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines, as it proved that fighting together with determination  yields results. 

Since then, for over 20 years, Carling has been defending Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights  not only in the Philippines but  also in Asia and at the global level.  In 2018, she received the Champions of the Earth award for her trajectory, the most important distinction of the United Nations in environmental matters. For an effective land defense, Carling recommends having a solid community organization, including women leadership, creating alliances with diverse stakeholders (communities, academics, local governments) and not letting companies set foot on the lands of Indigenous Peoples. “Once they are inside, it is much harder to get them out,” she warns.

The fight of the Amazigh People for collective land in Morocco

In Morocco, Amina Amharech, Amazigh indigenous activist, faces the latest assault of the Moroccan government against the notion of collective land of the Amazigh People as well as disregard for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In 2019, three laws were adopted that destroy the inalienability, which protected collective lands in Morocco, whereby these could not be sold, transferred or rented. Only the State could acquire the lands in those cases that proved to contribute to the wellbeing of the community. The Amazigh, also known as the Berber, is an Indigenous People that inhabits Northern Africa from Siwa, Egypt to the Canary Islands, with their own language, culture and identity. 

For Amina, behind such laws there is a clear intention of the State to encroach on the collective land, which still covers most of the country’s territory. “The French eliminated the customary right of the Amazigh to the land, the Izarfan, which guaranteed equal access for everyone to the land and natural resources. However, colonizers could not entirely end the relationship of the Amazigh with the land. We preserve the forms of community governance, decision-making processes where women are included, and food-sovereignty methods,” Amina explains. Upon the elimination of the 1919 French protectorate laws, the Moroccan State has taken even one step further in the dispossession of land from Indigenous Peoples, a situation that is exacerbated by the effects of climate change, preventing them from reaching the SDGs. 

The cultural basis of the Amazigh People: women, language and territory

Amina relates the new laws on collective lands to a fundamentalist Arabization project that intends to undermine the leadership position of Amazigh Women within their communities. “During my childhood, women have been very present. I saw how they could give their opinion and take part in debates without being discriminated against. They are the center of the family and the community; they are the ones who take care of their children and their households, but also those who preserve  ancestral knowledge and land,” Amina says. The word Tamazigh designates language, territory and woman, a highly symbolic term in the Amazigh cosmovision, which makes reference to the matrilineal structure of these people. However, in the 1980’s, the rising of the radical Islam negatively impacted the freedoms and social status of women in Morocco. 

This patriarchal character is found in the reaction caused by the new land laws. By renaming the collective land as soulaliyates (arabic word for female descendant), the Moroccan State has alienated men from women, as men believe that it will be women who benefit from this land. However, the reality is quite the opposite. “These are the consequences of a simple change of name and show the weak position that women have in regards to the land,” Amina remarks. In fact, the only ones who will gain control of these lands will be the private investors and oligarchs favoured by the new laws.

Criminalized for defending the land

Both Joan Carling and Amina Amharech have faced high risks for defending the land of their Indigenous Peoples against the expropriation by the State or extractive companies. Over the years while Carling worked for the Cordillera People’s Alliance, she was called a terrorist, along with other activists. At that time, she received numerous threats and four of her colleagues were murdered. Pressure on her life and her family was so high, that in 2006 she decided to take a break and leave the danger zone through the Oak Human Rights Fellowship Program

In turn, Amina Amharech has personally faced the corruption of the Moroccan State and judicial system, her family and community struggling for years against the state apparatus that is trying everything to expropriate them for belonging to the Amazigh People. When she intended to bring the case to justice, she was faced with a different kind of corruption, that of the judiciary system, with the Amicale Hassania des juges du Maroc trying to get their hands on those lands part of the Land Title 1683K. In Morocco today, there is a land mafia targeting all Amazigh land, whether collective or private. There are no laws in place to protect the rights of the Amazigh to their lands and natural resources and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find specialized attorneys who dare lead such cases.

Every time the Amazigh People protest, leaders are arrested and imprisoned. “Nothing can protect us. That is why I searched for the alternative before international bodies,” Amina states. Amharech participated in the UN Indigenous Fellowship Programme and, ever since, she has been a pioneer in taking the fight of the Amazigh People before the United Nations. 

A new legal framework for Indigenous Women to defend the land

In CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls, Amina finds the possibility of protecting the rights of her people and, particularly, the rights of women, from a State that deliberately violates them. However, she claims that for the Recommendation to reach the communities, previous dissemination and awareness efforts must be undertaken. “Women need to be taught how to use these mechanisms,” she affirms. 

For Joan Carling, who is currently the Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI), the danger is that the Recommendation remains a dead letter. In order to avoid it, it would be necessary to establish an accountability process and for the States to apply sanctions to those violating Human Rights. In any case, the CEDAW General Recommendation is a milestone in the history of the rights to land of Indigenous Women and Girls. The next challenge will be to enforce it. 

Recommendation 39 of the CEDAW Committee is a proposal from Indigenous Women for the benefit of all humanity

Eighteen years ago,the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues presented a recommendation for the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to take into account the distinct reality of Indigenous Women.

Since 2004, we have been working from the local to the global levels, making our way to the 82nd session of CEDAW in Geneva in 2022. We survived a pandemic and the adversities of a globalized world to open dialogue with the CEDAW Expert Committee and offer a first reading of the draft of Recommendation 39, which includes our contributions.

The process that the Indigenous Women’s movement went through with CEDAW is a good example of how to lead consultations in order to draft a recommendation that includes the reality and voices of Indigenous Women worldwide. Thirty Indigenous Women leaders, representing the seven sociocultural regions of the world, made their way to the heart of the United Nations, in Geneva, to bring a proposal that would allow them to enjoy a life without violence and discrimination.

Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas

The General Recommendation 39 is a proposal of universal interest, as it involves all of humanity. It covers topics such as gender-based violence against Indigenous Women and Girls, climate change, water, land and air pollution, sustainable and clean energy, food, gender equality, migration, armed conflicts, health and education, among others.

The work strategy in this space began with a coordination meeting among the delegation. We discussed and agreed upon the key issues to bring to CEDAW’s Expert Committee. 

“To understand the Indigenous Women’s rights issues, first we have to shed our skin. We have to leave behind what we have learnt at school and in the media in order to re-learn about the direction of the world,” suggests Gladys Acosta, Chair of the CEDAW Committee, emphasizing that the Committee has taken on the responsibility of responding to a historical debt owed to us, thus committing to include the contributions of Indigenous Women and adopt Recommendation 39 in October 2022.

Mujeres Indígenas

“The Recommendation must be understood through the lens of the Indigenous Peoples’ worldview and spirituality. It has been pushed by Indigenous Women to the UN to recognize their individual and collective rights.” Gladys Acosta, Chair of the CEDAW Committee

The creation of synergies is important for Indigenous Women to live with dignity and without discrimination, claimed Victoria Tauli Corpuz, Igorot woman from the Philippines,  who is the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2014 to 2020. Dialogue between governments, businesses, citizens, non-governmental organizations and educational institutions is important for achieving this. 

The dialogue between Indigenous Women and experts from the Committee was based on the recognition of both parties, bringing in the contributions of all involved. 

The General Recommendation is seen in a positive light in the Sami region, which encompasses Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Ragnhild Marit Sara, a Sami from Norway, explained that she watches over the land as a way to raise awareness and put an end to mineral extraction and wind energy investments. These projects pose a threat to Sami land rights and culture, as they impact reindeer pastureland.

Alicia Limtiaco, a Chamoru from Guam, invited those present to support this recommendation so that governments allocate funds for public policies and programs to face the climate crisis, seeing how Indigenous Women and their families will be the first island climate refugees due to rising sea levels by 2040. 

This recommendation will have a very important impact on the lives of Indigenous Youth worldwide, because human trafficking and violence are both related to exploitation and extractivism. Armed groups are forging alliances with the governments and public forces, explained Lizbeidy Monterrosa from Colombia.

Mujeres Indígenas

Esupat Ngulupa Laizer, Maasai from Tanzania, agrees that the recommendation will help protect Africa’s Indigenous Women from genital mutilation. Young women between the ages of 12 and 15 suffer significant damage to their mental and physical health from this practice.

In the words of Lucy Mulenkei, Maasai from Kenya, Vice President of FIMI and Executive Director of the Indigenous Information Network, the General Recommendation will allow for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples based on the principle of self-determination, as many Member States still do not recognize Indigenous Peoples in Africa.

As stated by Dutch Ambassador Paul Bekkers, achieving the effective implementation of the Recommendation will require actions focused around three areas: 1. Feminist policies 2. Funding to build strong movements 3. Diplomatic will to promote an agenda of gender equality where different coalitions can be included.

“The indivisibility of rights is a fundamental principle. All types of violence impact Indigenous Women and Girls. We have many recommendations to offer, but we keep monitoring the pending initiatives in the different countries and we know that the implementation phase remains a challenge,” commented Tarcila Rivera Zea, Quechua woman, President of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI).

Mujeres Indígenas

With what we achieved at CEDAW’s 82nd session, we honour the struggles, the principles and the path already travelled by the Indigenous Women who preceded us in their quest for equality. Today it is up to us to lead the way to the buen vivir of our peoples, as we look at the implementation of the Recommendation as our next challenge.

Mujeres Indígenas

Abya Yala Regional Consultation on the CEDAW General Recommendation

For a decade, we, Indigenous Women, have conceived a strategy with local, global and regional actions to end  the violence we endure and, thus, put an end to racism and discrimination. On May 19 and 20, 2022, in Mexico, the first regional meeting among Abya Yala experts and members of the CEDAW, UN Women, UNICEF and the government was carried out.

Regional Consultation for the Americas on the draft CEDAW General Recommendation on the Rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. Tlaxcala, Mexico, May 19-20, 2022

More than 50 Indigenous Women, belonging to 42 Indigenous Communities of 22 countries discussed the challenges we face in our communities and how the General Recommendation No. 39 will force the 189 Member States of the United Nations to close the gap between the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the violations we endure in each country.

Gladys Acosta, Chairperson of the CEDAW Committee.

The General Recommendation gives us hope that the laws and convention will be complied with and guarantees better living conditions for Indigenous Girls and Young Women. It is being created based on consultations and discussions with several Indigenous Women from different parts of the world, which enriches this strategic tool, as it broadens the view of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Teresa Zapeta, Executive Director of FIMI

In October 2022, the General Recommendation No. 39 of the Convention on the Elimination of of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) will come to life.

Marion Bethel, CEDAW Committee Expert