By Jillian Tsacoyeanes.
Indigenous Woman with Llamas and Lambs
Photo Credit: Nathan Gibbs
This blog series began by emphasizing that the world is not divided into men and women – gender is a broad spectrum, and not all women experience womanhood in the same way. In addition to gender, factors like race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class also shape the experience of womanhood. In the case of indigenous, or native, women around the world, recognizing these differences is particularly important. By recognizing the complexity of female experiences and the intersection of different identities, we can help to avoid generalizing the experiences of diverse women as the same.
Indigenous women experience multiple layers of discrimination, just like women from other marginalized groups, including women with disabilities, refugee women, and women who identify as LGBTQ+. While native women face the same discrimination that other women share, they also have unique challenges as they are native.
Indigenous peoples also vary widely in language, culture, and history, but indigenous activists and scholars have identified similar challenges facing many native groups. At least 350 million people, or 5 percent, of the world’s people are considered indigenous, so these challenges are not insignificant.
Forms of gender discrimination often disproportionately affect indigenous women. A 2013 study in India revealed that indigenous women were at greater risk of domestic violence, as 47 percent of married indigenous girls and women aged 15-49 had experienced violence at the hands of their husbands, compared to 40 percent of all women in India. Indigenous girls may struggle to access education and economic opportunities, often leading them to be illiterate and poor. While these challenges occur around the world, their impact is compounded in already poor regions.
Healthcare, reproductive health, and family planning services are often inaccessible to indigenous women. Native women in many parts of the world, most notably the United States and Central America, have historically been subjected to forced sterilizations. This practiced continued into the 1980s, and in addition to being a gross violation of physical boundaries, drove many native women to develop psychological disorders or reliance on drugs or alcohol. Today, education that aligns with specific native cultural traditions can be sparse, resulting in a dearth of effective sex education and healthcare options and leaving indigenous women vulnerable to sexual and other health problems.
While other women may be able to relate to these challenges to some degree, indigenous women face other obstacles solely because they are native. A crucial aspect of indigenous activism includes the fight for self-determination and recognition. Indigenous people around the world are fighting to maintain control over their identities, cultures, and ancestral land, a struggle that is integral to many indigenous women. Where this is occurring in developing countries, inclusive development must recognize the indigenous pursuit for self-determination.
As land is integral to many indigenous peoples, environmental harm and climate change dramatically affect indigenous women. Harmful environmental policies, such as forest destruction and fossil fuel burning, harm native lands and thus native lives and livelihoods. Many indigenous women are speaking out at events like the UN Climate Summit on the importance of caring for the Earth, and their voices are valuable contributions to the movement.
Moving forward, it is imperative that the international community recognizes the complexity of female identities. Accepting that indigenous women have unique needs based on both their gender and their native status will lead to intersectional, effective development.
Jillian is a UCLA student pursuing a double major in History and International Development Studies. She is working towards a career in international development that focuses especially on the unique challenges facing women in the Global South. Jillian has wet her feet in the international arena by working in Jamaica and Ecuador, studying in France, and interning at Women Thrive Worldwide and the Burkle Center for International Relations. http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/none/defining-indigenous  http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/publications/2013/VAIWG_FINAL.pdf  http://www.cgdev.org/files/15154_file_GirlsCount.pdf; http://undesadspd.org/IndigenousPeoples/CrossThematicIssues/IndigenousWomen.aspx  Jane Lawrence, “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women,” American Indian Quarterly 24 (2000): 402.  http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/gender-issues/news/2013/11/lima-declaration-world-conference-indigenous-women-october-2013; https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/252-the-millenium-development-goals/52541–world-conference-of-indigenous-women.html  http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v49/n1/full/1100227a.html  http://undesadspd.org/IndigenousPeoples/CrossThematicIssues/IndigenousWomen.aspx  http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/gender-issues/news/2013/11/lima-declaration-world-conference-indigenous-women-october-2013 http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2566984/indigenous_women_versus_men_of_power_the_real_dispute_at_the_un.html