Rights: Indigenous women facing a broad spectrum of abuses

Indigenous women and girls experience complex, multi-dimensional and mutually reinforcing human rights violations, with abuses of their collective, economic, social and cultural, as well as civil and political rights being varied and severe.

This is one of the main findings of the report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, to the Human Rights Council, which is currently holding its regular thirtieth session.

According to the report, which was presented by the rights expert to the Council on Tuesday, those violations are alarming infractions on their own, but constitute a form of structural violence against indigenous women whereby they are victimized by the realities of the circumstances of their everyday life and routinely excluded from enjoying the rights and resources otherwise guaranteed to citizens.

Indigenous women also suffer from other forms of violence, including traditional practices, sexual violence, trafficking, domestic violence and gender-based killings, said the report.

The Special Rapporteur noted that despite the severity and regularity of violations of the rights of indigenous women, the attention of much of the United Nations human rights and development policy architecture has been limited.

"Gaps and weaknesses in analysis include a lack of geographical balance, limited inclusion of collective rights, little exploration of inter-sectionality in relation to the vulnerability of indigenous women and a lack of exploration of the gender implications to rights issues affecting indigenous communities."

To protect the rights of indigenous women, both a paradigm shift and the development of a multi-dimensional approach is needed, said Ms Tauli-Corpuz.

"States must find a way to strike a delicate balance between protection of indigenous women and respect for self-determination and autonomy of indigenous peoples. Engagement and consultation with indigenous women and girls is central to finding that balance."

Despite many barriers to inclusion, indigenous leaders and advocates have made significant strides in achieving recognition of indigenous peoples' rights and perspectives, including the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the establishment of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

According to the report, indigenous women actively participated in the processes that gave birth to all those mechanisms and thus feel some ownership over the Declaration and the mechanisms.

Despite the progress made, systematic attention to the specific vulnerability of indigenous women has remained limited in relation to the scale of abuses against them. Furthermore, what international attention has been given to the issue has not sufficiently focused on the nexus between individual and collective rights, nor on how intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerability contribute to ongoing abuses of indigenous women's rights.

"That has created a gap that has contributed to ongoing widespread impunity in relation to the rights of indigenous women and girls."

The Special Rapporteur highlighted that there have been some promising signs of progress towards closing that gap, such as the efforts taken by indigenous women to empower themselves by establishing their own organizations and networks, and making their issues more visible at national and global levels.

"It must be recognized that the United Nations has established a solid gender equality and women's rights regime, which has opened up more possibilities for indigenous women to engage in debates on gender issues."

The report noted that a cornerstone of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, self-determination is defined as both a choice to determine political status, as well as the right to have autonomy over economic, social and cultural development.

Violations of the broad right to self-determination of indigenous peoples are historically and currently endemic, said the Special Rapporteur.

Those have included gross and sustained assaults on the cultural integrity of indigenous peoples; denigration and non-recognition of customary laws and governance systems; failure to develop frameworks that allow indigenous peoples appropriate levels of self-governance; and practices that strip indigenous peoples of autonomy over land and natural resources.

Those patterns of violations are vividly exemplified by colonization, but have also been perpetuated by post- colonial power structures and State practices.

Those violations of the right to self-determination have been highly detrimental to the advancement of the rights of indigenous women and girls in a number of ways.

The Special Rapporteur also said that a strong link to the land, territory and natural resources is a characteristic that is commonly associated with indigenous peoples. Despite relevant provisions in international human rights law, indigenous peoples experience weak protection of their land and property rights, which exposes them to risks of displacement, expropriation and exploitation.

In indigenous communities where matriarchy and matrilineal practices exist, the loss of land will likewise undermine indigenous women's status and roles. The gendered effects of those violations become manifest in situations where indigenous women lose their traditional livelihoods, such as food gathering, agricultural production, herding, among others, while compensation and jobs following land seizure tend to benefit male members of indigenous communities.

The loss of land and exclusion of women can create vulnerability to abuse and violence, such as sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking. Additionally, the secondary effects of violations of land rights, such as loss of livelihood and ill health, often disproportionally impact women in their roles of caregivers and guardians of the local environment.

The report noted that indigenous peoples account for 5 per cent of the world's population, while representing 15 per cent of those living in poverty. As many as 33 per cent of all people living in extreme rural poverty globally are from indigenous communities.

"Those figures are particularly alarming given the wealth of natural resources that are located within indigenous territories. That level of poverty is a violation of indigenous people's rights to development, as well as their economic and social rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, food, water, health and education."

Such poverty is deeply inter-related with abuses of land and self-determination.
The denial of self-determination in relation to development pathways and control over natural resources is also a central causal factor in the prevalence of poverty among indigenous communities.

The Special Rapporteur also said high unemployment is an important issue in relation to the poverty experienced by indigenous communities, as indigenous peoples are disproportionally represented within the world's unemployed.

In Australia, the indigenous unemployment rate was 15.6 per cent in 2006, that is, just over three times higher than the non-indigenous unemployment rate, while the median indigenous income was around half of the non- indigenous income.

In the western provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, unemployment among indigenous people was as high as 13.6 per cent, but stood at only 5.3 per cent among the non-indigenous population.

"Indigenous women are directly affected by poverty and weaknesses in programmes designed to tackle it, as well as by unemployment trends and wage-related discrimination. The multiple forms of discrimination, based on gender, age, socioeconomic situation and ethnic origin, experienced by indigenous women make them highly vulnerable to poverty."

Food insecurity is not well-managed or understood within indigenous peoples due to a severe lack of relevant data. However, it is widely recognized that indigenous people experience significant food insecurity and therefore suffer from widespread violations of their right to food.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz said that there is an emerging trend whereby indigenous peoples' lands are being grabbed by political and business actors who want to set up industrial food production farms or lands for production of biofuels, such as sugar cane and Jatropha.

"Indigenous peoples' livelihoods such as rotational agriculture, pastoralism, hunting and gathering which have ensured food security for them are now increasingly being threatened. These have led to the destruction of indigenous women's livelihoods that are land-based."

The report said indigenous peoples, in particular women, tend to have low levels of educational attainment and literacy compared with non-indigenous populations.
That situation is a violation of the right of everyone to an education. Such violations of the rights of indigenous persons to an education are multi-dimensional and brings into consideration the issues of access, quality and inclusion.

The report also citied examples of profound physical and mental health inequalities between indigenous and non- indigenous people. In the United States of America, a Native American is 600 times more likely to contract tuberculosis than a non-Native American. Worldwide, over 50 per cent of indigenous adults suffer from type 2 diabetes, and indigenous peoples' life expectancy is up to 20 years lower than their non-indigenous counterparts.

The report further found that abuses of indigenous people's cultural rights are endemic, owing to a sustained unwillingness on the part of many States to celebrate indigenous culture or to promote the use of indigenous languages in schools as part of the cultural diversity of citizens within their borders. That has a cross-cutting effect on the rights of indigenous women and children.

The commodification of the cultures and cultural heritage of indigenous peoples is a common experience for many indigenous peoples. For example, indigenous territories have been declared World Heritage Sites without their free, prior and informed consent, thereby turning them into tourist areas. In most cases, the people who reap the biggest benefits are foreign or national travel and tour agencies or hotel owners.

According to the Special Rapporteur, indigenous peoples face persistent and multifaceted forms of racism and racial discrimination. Such discrimination is intimately interconnected and mutually reinforcing with the spectrum of violations experienced by indigenous peoples.

Indigenous women and girls experience racism and racial discrimination as members of indigenous communities. Such violations of their rights also increase their vulnerability to other human rights abuses, as they are part of the intersecting forms of discrimination and inequality that they face.

The Special Rapporteur said that data and comprehensive comparative research on indigenous women and the criminal justice system are very underdeveloped.
However, reports suggest that indigenous women are over-represented in the criminal justice systems and the number of indigenous women in custody is increasing in a number of countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

For instance, estimates suggest that Maori women in New Zealand represent 40 to 60 per cent of the female prison population, while the Maori people represent around 15 per cent of the general population. In 2010, 30 per cent of incarcerated women in Australia were reported to be indigenous.

The report said the endemic violations of collective, civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights can be seen as constituting a form of structural violence against indigenous women and girls. Structural violence results in women being victimized by the realities of the circumstances of their everyday life and routinely excluded from the rights and resources otherwise guaranteed to citizens.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz said structural violence is interlinked and mutually reinforcing with other forms of violence, citing in this context sexual violence, gender-based killings, violence in the context of conflict, violence in the name of tradition, domestic violence, and trafficking.

She said systematic analysis of the conclusions of United Nations human rights mechanisms conducted for this report showed significant gaps and weaknesses in relation to the rights of indigenous women and girls.

Gaps and weaknesses in some human rights and development monitoring mechanisms include: (a) The lack of geographical balance in relation to the comments made by the different mechanisms; (b) Failure to discuss the role that intersecting forms of vulnerability and discrimination plays in violations of the rights of indigenous women and girls; (c) Limited exploration of the nexus between individual and collective rights; and (d) The absence of gender analysis when discussing issues that impact indigenous communities.

Similarly, a number of development and other policy mechanisms, including the Millennium Development Goals, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals and the Beijing Platform for Action, have given disproportionally low attention relative to needs.

"These gaps and weaknesses in the monitoring and implementation of the human rights of indigenous peoples contribute to a culture of impunity and render the violations of rights invisible to international and national policy makers and legislators."

In this context, the report highlighted issues such as a lack of disaggregated data, a lack of inclusive birth registration systems, neo-liberal economic and development paradigms, issues of jurisdiction and community dynamics and stigma.

The Special Rapporteur noted that neo-liberalism grew in dominance in the latter part of the twentieth century and infiltrated development policy.

"The entry of foreign direct investments in indigenous territories to exploit mineral resources and establish mega-infrastructure projects without the free, informed and prior consent of the citizens impacted by market liberalization and deregulation has led to systematic violations of indigenous land rights and self-determination."

Another way in which neo-liberalism has affected indigenous peoples and women are related to the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. "Such policy interventions, which are based on neo-liberal doctrines, prescribe harsh fiscal austerity programmes as a remedy for economic under-development and a high ratio of indebtedness in relation to gross domestic product."

Dramatic decreases in government spending routinely result in cuts to vital services, which disproportionally impact the most vulnerable, including indigenous women, said the report.

By Kanaga Raja.

Source: SUNS #8098 Thursday 24 September 2015