Indigenous women shape women’s rights

Publication Date: 
June 3, 2011

The voices of indigenous women have repeatedly reminded national governments, human rights bodies and other national and international fora that their human rights as women need to be addressed as the rights of indigenous women. Accordingly, indigenous women have called on the United Nations bodies and processes related to women to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “as a minimum standard in the fulfilment and enjoyment of rights by indigenous women”.

This call includes an affirmation that the objectives of the wider women’s movement, including equal status and pay, as well as the full participation of women in decision-making and the integration of mainstreaming gender perspectives, will be meaningless if inequalities between nations, races, classes and genders are not simultaneously challenged. Women’s rights must therefore be understood within a wider economic, social and cultural context and appropriate standards to address the violations faced by indigenous women must address their specific status as both women, and indigenous persons.

Indigenous peoples’ rights and women’s rights

As in other areas of indigenous peoples’ rights, rights to lands and resources firmly underpin indigenous women’s declarations and public statements. Indigenous women have emphasized that lands and resources are bound to their crucial roles as guardians of traditional knowledge related to health and herbal medicine, customary use of natural resources, as well as language and transmission of indigenous knowledge in all spheres. Military operations and extractive industry developments also place indigenous women’s struggle to be free from gender violence in the context of the denial of their right to own and control their territories.

Indigenous women have used the state reporting mechanism of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (ICEDAW) to seek redress for the challenges facing them. The Committee that oversees ICEDAW has, over the years, generally proven reluctant to affirm clear specific standards for indigenous women. The Concluding Observations adopted by the Committee more often place indigenous women’s rights together with the rights of other ‘vulnerable groups’, which includes rural women, minorities and children. This vision of indigenous women denies their place as holders of a specific set of rights and responsibilities and instead makes them victims. This approach has also not provided national decision makers with clear standards to adequately address the issues facing indigenous women, and has excluded the collective rights and land rights attached to their claims. One of the reasons for this lack of specific standards is that the structure and essence of ICEDAW does not naturally encompass indigenous women’s issues. Indigenous women’s organisations wanting to use the mechanisms attached to the Convention to advance their human rights thus find themselves having to re-shape their concerns within a framework that lacks sensitivity to their specific situation as indigenous women.

The mainstream women’s rights movement has not always proven an easy partner for indigenous women’s own advocacy. Feminist speeches in general have been criticised by indigenous women as ‘words written by white women, for white women’, with similar concerns expressed about wider human rights discourse generated through ICEDAW, the Millennium Developments Goals and the Beijing Platform. However some agencies and bodies have recognized these difficulties and tried to change them, such as the Commission on the Status of Women which recommended the effective participation of indigenous women in the follow-up, implementation and monitoring of women’s rights.

Quest for a framework inclusive of indigenous women’s rights 

General human rights mechanisms can be effective advocates of indigenous peoples’ rights. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has proven active in affirming the relationship between the land rights of indigenous peoples and the human rights of indigenous women, through its Concluding Observations and through the adoption of a General Recommendation on gender related dimensions of racial discrimination. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also looked at indigenous women’s issues through the lens of indigenous peoples’ rights, issuing specific standards at first mainly within the mandate of its Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities (WGIP). More recently, the Special Rapporteur on women’s rights in Africa, who is also a member of the WGIP, has initiated programmes and standards specific to indigenous women.

Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) supports our partners in using these human rights standard setting mechanisms, and others, to gain recognition of the specific issues facing indigenous women. At the African Commission, intense advocacy work from indigenous organisations led to: the adoption of the first Concluding Observations containing specific recommendations on indigenous women; the Special Rapporteur on the rights of women in Africa explicitly highlighted the direct link between indigenous peoples rights and the rights of the women belonging to these communities; and a resolution on the rights of indigenous women in Africa was adopted by the African Commission.

A report prepared by Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, a Colombian organisation of indigenous women, for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ (UNPFII) visit to Colombia in July 2010, highlighted various issues, including the insecurity of land tenure, the disproportionate impact of land grabbing on indigenous women and the sexual violence perpetrated by military forces in Wayuu territory. Following their visit to Colombia, the UNPFII issued a press statement and a report that provides recommendations specific to Wayuu women.

Asian indigenous women’s organisations were also supported in convening a regional workshop in the Philippines in November 2010. The workshop report highlights again the centrality of land rights for indigenous women in Asia and emphasises the need for enhanced informed participation of indigenous women in human rights mechanisms, including the ones under the ICEDAW. The Asian Indigenous Women Network (AIWN) is currently preparing a guide to the mechanisms and standards of the ICEDAW for indigenous women in Asia.

Ugandan and Nepali indigenous women have taken the opportunity to submit alternative reports to the ICEDAW Committee on the occasion of the examination of their states’ report before the Committee, scheduled respectively in October 2010 and July 2011. In their reports, Batwa women stressed the need to connect the violations of their human rights to the eviction of their people from their ancestral lands and the land dispossession they have faced since.  The Committee noted ‘with concern the particularly marginalized situation of the Batwa women’ and urged Uganda ‘to continue to intensify the implementation of gender-sensitive poverty reduction and development programmes in rural and urban areas and to pay particular attention to the Batwa women in the development of such programmes.’ This recommendation however dealt with the issue from the individual rights standpoint and was quiet as to how their human rights fitted in the wider indigenous peoples’ rights legal framework. Nepali indigenous women will submit their report to the ICEDAW Committee this month, also placing land rights at the heart of their submission, in the hope that this human rights body will adopt clear recommendations that they can use to advocate for the full realisation of their rights at the national level.

Indigenous Women's Reports:

  • . (Spanish only). Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu

Report of the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network to the 8th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 18-29 May 2009, second recommendation.

Beijing Declaration of Indigenous Women, NGO Forum, UN Fourth World Conference on Women Huairou, Beijing, Peoples Republic of China, 7 September 1995, paragraph 16.

See among others: Beijing Declaration of Indigenous Women, NGO Forum, UN Fourth World Conference on Women Huairou, Beijing, Peoples Republic of China, 7 September 1995; The Manukan Declaration of the Indigenous Women Biodiversity Network, Manukan, Sabah, Malaysia, 4-5 February 2004; Bringing Indigenous Perspective to the International Arena: An Indigenous Women’s Conference, International Indigenous Women’s Forum Declaration, New York, 27 February, 2005.

For a list of standards adopted by CEDAW, see: , Forest Peoples Programme, May 2011

Quoted in: Myrna Cunningham, ‘Indigenous Women’s Visions of an Inclusive Feminism’ Development, 2006, 49(1), (55–59) 1011-6370/06,

“Recognizing that profound gaps exist between indigenous women and other groups, which will affect the achievement of the Millennium Developments Goals; Recommends that Governments, intergovernmental agencies, the private sector and civil society adopt measures that ensure the full and effective participation of indigenous women in the implementation, follow-up work and monitoring of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals” Indigenous Women Beyond the Ten-Year Review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action E/CN.6/2005/L.10, Commission on the Status of Women, Forty-ninth session, 28 February-11 March 2005 

Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, General Recommendation No. 25: Gender related dimensions of racial discrimination: 1391st meeting 20 March 2000, Contained in document A/55/18, annex V  

Concluding Observations and Recommendations on the Second Periodic Report of the Republic of Cameroon, adopted by the African Commission at its 47th Ordinary Session in May 2010 are available at:

Soyata Maiga, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa in: ‘’, Foreword, Forest Peoples Programme, 2011. 


“The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concludes visit to Colombia” UNPFII press release, 8 Sept 2010, available at ; Situation of indigenous peoples in danger of extinction in Colombia, Summary of the report and recommendations of the mission by the Permanent Forum to Colombia, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, E/C.19/2011/3, 11 February 2011, paragraphs 23, 24,26, and 83. 

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations Uganda, CEDAW/C/UGA/CO/7, 22 October 2010.