Asia – Indigenous Women Fight for Justice, Influence and Equity

By Julie Koch

The author is the Executive Director of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

COPENHAGEN, Jun 5 2017 (IPS) - Indigenous women in Asia are setting examples in their efforts for a more peaceful, fair and equal world. But discrimination, poverty and lack of recognition still hinder indigenous women from fully participating in developing their societies.

2017 has been called the year of empowerment of indigenous women by the UN Commission on the Status of Women. A timely and relevant choice, since indigenous women belong to one of the most marginalized groups in the world, and at the same time have so much to offer.

Empowering indigenous women to achieve justice, gain influence and take action is a precondition for a more equal world. But for this to happen, states and institutions must back up, when indigenous women are claiming their right to participation and are protesting against harmful traditional practices and sexual abuse.

Change from Women’s Perspective

Indigenous women gain more and more influence – internationally, nationally, and in their local communities.

Rukka Sombolinggi from the Torajan people in Indonesia says: “Indigenous women face discrimination on several fronts: We are poor, we are indigenous, and we are women. But this has strengthened our resolve to assert our rights, because when women have equal rights, our communities benefit.”

Across Asia, female indigenous activists like Rukka Sombolinggi from Sulawesi in Indonesia, Piy Macliing Malayao, the young Secretary General of Katribu in the Philippines, and Jannie Lasimbang, a prominent indigenous rights leader in Malaysia, are setting examples.

They increasingly raise their concerns and voices, when it comes to indigenous peoples’ rights, land grabbing, and climate change: The survival of their family and their people is threatened, so they act.

Indigenous women also gain more recognition for their specialised knowledge on food security and protection of forests and natural resources. They protect biodiversity and share new knowledge of protecting and improving the forest. For them mitigating climate changes is a way to ensure the wellbeing of their families.

Breaking with Patterns of Discrimination

Given the several challenges faced by indigenous peoples – climate change, land-grapping and human rights violations – women are included in protests, advocacy work and to some extent decision-making processes.

In Asia, women lead several indigenous peoples’ organisations, and the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues is a woman from the Philippines.

Indigenous women are increasingly organising themselves in networks and organisations to be better able to raise specific issues more effectively to decision-makers and authorities. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) provides a framework for women to raise issues concerning their rights.

For indigenous women, their peoples’ rights to land and self-determined development are just as important as to men.

Sexual Harassment, Abuse and Rape

Still, indigenous women around the world are over-represented as victims of sexual harassment and gender-based violence, and they face major barriers in accessing justice for gender-based violence.

Seeking education or work outside of their communities set indigenous women at risk of being raped or assaulted. A massive influx of non-indigenous workers, soldiers, and security personnel into indigenous areas has led to an increase of sex work along with sexual harassment and rape.

Furthermore, the practices of law-enforcement by states and authorities discourage indigenous women to seek justice: They fear reprisals from their indigenous communities when reporting sexual assault or rapes, as well as fearing the justice system itself with humiliating evidence collection of their innocence, insensitive interrogations, and culturally unknown settings of courtrooms and police stations.

Gender-Disaggregated Data Is Needed

Violence against women are often ignored, even accepted and rarely reported.

Unfortunately this follows the trend of missing information and data on indigenous women. Many states do not recognize the existence of indigenous peoples and therefore don’t report on indigenous peoples’ issues.

However, in seeking justice and ending discrimination against indigenous women, data is much needed. As thousands of stories and news about sexual harassment of indigenous women have not convinced decision-makers to act, numbers and data illustrating the size of the problems might increase awareness and influence political processes.

IWGIA has, together with our Asian partners Tebtebba and AIPP and three other organisations and institutions, initiated the EU-supported online data collection tool called the Indigenous Navigator. The aim of the tool is to provide community-generated data from indigenous peoples around the world – offered for free and with the possibility of disaggregating data.

The objective is to make up for the current lack of information and numbers, and make indigenous peoples and women visible as right holders.

Indigenous Women Are Change Agents

With our support to indigenous women, we are trying to break the cycle of non-participation, violence and sexual discrimination against women.

We see indigenous women as change agents: They pass their knowledge and cultural traditions on to future generations, and they revive and develop the societies they are part of.

We therefore strongly encourage States to take serious their obligation to prevent violence against indigenous women, protect them, and punish the perpetrators.