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Indigenous Feminism Within Latin America

All over South America there has been a rise in indigenous feminism with many indigenous women speaking out in favour of increased political and cultural rights and a more equal society within their respective tribes. This appearance of indigenous feminism began in the 1990s with a variety of groups in a number of South American countries campaigning for a variety of issues. (Castillo, 2010, p. 540)*

Indigenous feminism differs from the western idea of the movement; indigenous feminist groups consider equality not just as a gender issue but also as an issue of equality between the human race and nature. Whilst the indigenous feminist groups are fighting their own battles regarding their ethnicity, class and gender, and the perceived exclusion they have experienced as both women and indigenous people, they also work within and for their own groups’ overall struggles against issues such as climate change and deforestation. (Castillo, 2010, p. 542)*

In order for indigenous women to fully enjoy their rights they have to deal with several challenges such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, discrimination, poor education, poverty and the lack of access to healthcare services. The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) mentioned that the wave of globalization brings new challenges into the world. Due to several factors such as the loss of biodiversity and the shifting of local economic systems to capitalism, political and social structures have changed, and subsequently so has the role of indigenous women in their societies which are also undergoing change. (United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues (OSAGI), n.d)

Against this background, Indigenous women have been organizing themselves on a local, domestic, and global level to deal with the challenges mentioned above. These women have been working in cooperation with the UN on the Working Group on Indigenous Populations project since 1982. They have been contributing and participating in negotiations concerning their future for over 20 years to create the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was approved in 2007 by the General Assembly. (UN – OSAGI, n.d.)

Indigenous women’s rights groups in Central and South America began to form in the early 1990s, inspired by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico, widely regarded as one of the most influential group of supporters of Indigenous women’s rights. In 1994, the group, in collaboration with women from other indigenous groups such as the Tojobal, Chol, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal, drew up a law that would become an important icon for the many thousands of indigenous women all over Latin America, called the Women’s Revolutionary Law. (Castillo, 2010, p. 541)*

The bill contains ten main points that list the rights of indigenous women, including:

“Rights to political participation and to hold leadership posts within the political system, to a life free of sexual and domestic violence, to decide how many children they want to have, to a fair wage, to choose a spouse, to an education, and to quality health services.” (Castillo, 2010, p. 542)*

The Zapatista movement represented a decisive moment for the inclusion of women in indigenous organizations that were mainly dominated by men. These women started to promote the notion of equality for indigenous women. (Rousseau, 2011)

During the 1990’s these movements started to spread through Latin America and became a space for indigenous women to organize politically. This enabled indigenous women from several regions to have an opportunity to act together in meetings, workshops and discussions. (Castillo, 2010, p. 542)*

In 2005, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) organized a forum in New York to discuss the situation of indigenous women and to find plausible solutions for their problems.

The forum heard that many of these women feel that their governments and societies are discriminating against them by limiting their political participation and not giving them the opportunity to conserve their environment, traditions, language and identity. As a Guatemalan Indian stated: “Because of free trade agreements, multinational companies are exploiting our mines, decimating our rivers, our animals, and our environment”. Many of these women also had to deal with the discrimination of race and culture, the abuse of human rights, land invasion, waves of migration, government neglect and the loss of their identity. (UNICEF, 2012)

It is interesting to note that diverse indigenous groups all over the world are dealing with the same problems, even though they live in different countries and societies. As a Peruvian Indian pointed out: “Our governments are too far removed from the reality of our indigenous communities,” and “Grade teachers are raping our children and they are allowed to go unpunished”.  (UNICEF, 2012)

Feminism and Indigenous women in Brazil

Feminism and gender equality concepts started to emerge during the mid-1970’s in Brazil due to external influence from Europe and the US. After military dictatorship ended in the 1980’s, feminism in Brazil was characterized by a new wave of social movements that brought up several political issues. During this time, the National Woman’s Rights Council was created in 1985, and the role of women and feminist organizations played an important part in the creation of the current Brazilian Constitution of 1988. (Maluf, 2009)

The Women’s Council for the Rights of Women’s main priority is to stop violence against women but it also play a vital role in Brazilian politics, being responsible for ensuring government policy in Brazil takes gender perspectives into consideration. It also runs initiatives to help women, from enabling them to broaden their horizons through capacity building or protecting and offering refuge for those vulnerable to violence. (Corral, n.d)

For indigenous women, feminist groups and movements that center exclusively around gender issues do not hold much interest, instead preferring to engage with groups that focus on issues that affect males and females alike, such as racism and colonialism. As Kambel (2004) states, this is likely because of their inability to exercise their human rights and this is perceived to be due being labeled as indigenous, rather than being female. (Kambel, 2004, p.3)

Indigenous women in Brazil still have a long struggle ahead in order to have their rights fully recognized and respected by the government, businesses and people. They need to continue to raise their voice even more to make their opinion heard and participate in politics.

* Castillo, R. A. (2010). The Emergence of Indigenous Feminism in Latin America. Chicago Journals, Vol. 35,(No. 3), 539-545.

*This Article is adapted from my master’s thesis: ‘Sustainable Development & Green Economy: the planet’s future or greening indigenous communities into oblivion?’ which was completed as part of the Master’s Curriculum at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany.

*Cover image ‘Michelle Bachelet con mujeres índigenas y afrodescendientes’ by  UN


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