27 October 2020

We Are Indigenous: Shattering the Glass Ceiling for Indigenous Women

There are an estimated 476 million Indigenous peoples in the world, living across 90 countries. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

COVID-19 has posed a grave threat to Indigenous peoples around the world, who already lack access to healthcare and other essential services. Yet, Indigenous peoples are seeking their own solutions in their own languages, using divergent knowledge, practices and preventive measures to fight the pandemic.

In the We Are Indigenous series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) speaks with Indigenous academics, activists and community leaders to learn how the global Indigenous community’s contributions are building a healthier and more sustainable future for us all.

It is estimated that approximately 50 per cent of the total Indigenous population, 238 million people, are women. Using their voices to advocate for their communities, Indigenous women have contributed to crucial conversations on global issues, from sharing the Indigenous experience to empower women and girls at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), to showcasing Indigenous climate action at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and calling upon the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to adopt a general recommendation on Indigenous women. No challenge is off limits for this unique coalition of change-makers.

However, the valuable social, political, and economic contributions of Indigenous women are sometimes overshadowed by the discrimination they face, both as women and as Indigenous peoples. A recent report by UN Women states that Indigenous women continue to face the fatal health impacts of environmental degradation and extractive industries, noting that Indigenous women and adolescent girls are significantly less likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to benefit from services and have worse maternal health outcomes. The report also states that women who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination are at greater risk of being subjected to violence, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Confronted with these facts, it is important to hear the voices of Indigenous women who face marginalization because of their cultural and gender identity, as they remain a force of advocacy and a source of hope for the next generation of women in the field of Indigenous rights.

Chandra Kalindi Roy-Henriksen is the head of the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Originally from Bangladesh, Ms. Roy-Heniksen’s values were shaped by her father, the chief of her people, as well as her grandmother, a highly respected and influential woman in her community who passed on traditional teachings to her such as weaving, plant picking, making rice cakes, and the timeless importance in respecting the land: “That the land is here for us, and you cannot take it with you when you go. You leave it for the generations that come after you.”

Speaking about breaking the glass ceiling for Indigenous women, Ms. Roy-Henriksen pointed out that learning to navigate systems of power in a way that feels authentic to women is key. From her experience as a lawyer she noted that “Often when women speak their minds, they are seen as aggressive or dominating, while a man is seen as being assertive,” but this reality should not stop women from chasing their dreams. There are nuances that women must learn to respond to while balancing work, life, family, tradition, and at the same time “Not forgetting that you are a woman, and you have your own interests and your hobbies.” Above all, women must remain confident in who they are, and this includes where they are from and how they were raised. Ms. Roy-Henriksen is proud to work with numerous Indigenous women within the field of law and through her work at the United Nations and she looks forward to watching the young women who come after her continue to shatter that glass ceiling.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an environmental activist, the founder of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT) and a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Advocate. Ms. Ibrahim is an expert in Indigenous peoples’ adaptation to climate change, traditional ecological knowledge and climate change mitigation strategies. As a co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, she actively promotes the unique contribution of Indigenous collectives when it comes to the protection of the environment.

When asked about her leadership role on a global scale, Ms. Ibrahim responded, “When I am asking people to respect my Indigenous communities, first and foremost, I need them to respect me.” According to Ms. Ibrahim, establishing oneself as a respectable figure in the public sphere certainly does not come easily for Indigenous women, but it is not impossible. “I share my ideas and tell them that what I am saying is not only important for woman, but for the world, and then they start paying attention and giving me respect, which allows me to discuss these important topics with them.”

Placing a strong value on education, Ms. Ibrahim acknowledged her mother who chose to send her to school, despite the judgement from those around them, as one of her greatest inspirations. She was also encouraged by a female Indigenous leader to apply for the Indigenous Fellowship Programme of the UN the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland, which focused on international human rights standards and mechanisms, and Indigenous peoples’ rights. Such support from other Indigenous women helped contribute to Ms. Ibrahim’s success as a leader in her own right. 

Mirian Masaquiza Jerez, a Kichwa/Salasaka activist from Ecuador, also completed the Indigenous Fellowship Programme of OHCHR when she worked with the Confederación Nacional de Campesinas, Indigenas y Negras del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Ecuadorians, and Rural Organizations, FENOCIN). Now a social affairs officer at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Ms. Jerez agreed that through education, Indigenous women can better understand their roots, which helps them become proud of their identity, language and culture. “Education has given the opportunity for Indigenous women to reconsider their future.”  

One of the major elements of Ms. Jerez’s work was to strengthen the participation of Indigenous youth and women in various forums at both national and international levels where they have focused their discussions on health, well-being, identity, empowerment as well as self-determination, with these issues gaining recognition in intergovernmental processes. Ms. Jerez is proud of the success achieved by Indigenous women in the international arena of the Permanent Forum and noted that it is “now the time to implement those discussions" and create concrete policies and bodies of law that protect and support Indigenous women and girls.

Mai Thin Yu Mon is a young human rights activist and a respected Chin female leader from Myanmar who has had an interest in learning about Indigenous rights from a young age. She serves as the program director for the Indigenous Peoples Development Program of Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) and is a member of the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) and the steering committee of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).  

“I am really impressed to see how far the Indigenous leaders from different parts of the world have collectively pushed the Indigenous people's rights movements,” she said, pointing out that Indigenous youth pursuing leadership roles “are the beneficiaries of all the efforts that were made by our elders and Indigenous leaders since decades ago.”

As a young woman immersed in the field of Indigenous activism, Ms. Yu Mon does not find balancing her interests and work difficult, as her interests are rooted in her work. With many hours of her day spent on policy reform, environmental awareness and cultural revival, the young activist values self-care through hydration and meditation, noting that women often place their own needs on the backburner in order to serve the greater good of the community. Ms. Yu Mon is dedicated to building a better future for society, just as the Indigenous women before her have done so.

A consistent theme among these Indigenous women activists is the value in collaboration to reform current systems so they can better serve the needs of Indigenous women and girls. Grassroots organizations, educational programs and leadership training developed specifically for Indigenous women and girls are contributing to building a stronger community, which empowers young Indigenous girls and ensures that they have the support they need to achieve their dreams.