Indigenous Women Around the World Turn to International Instruments to Enshrine Their Rights

On the second day of the World Conference of Indigenous Women, indigenous leaders discussed how their rights are enshrined in international treaties and agreements, despite the colonial and patriarchal framework in which these are generated. For Indigenous Women, these instruments can be used as pressure mechanisms to claim their rights before the States and their own Peoples, although they recognize that there is still a lot of resistance to overcome.

Carmen González Benicio, from Tlapa, Guerrero, México
We can use international instruments to highlight, defend, claim and exercise our rights as Indigenous Women and Peoples. This was the message launched by activists and defenders during the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women, Together for the well-being of Mother Earth, on its second day of discussions on Thursday, August 19.
During the day’s main panel, “From the local to the global agenda: the role of Indigenous Women in monitoring and implementing international instruments”, activist Eleanor Dictaan-Bang-oa of the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network said that, despite their inscription within the colonial framework, international instruments are functional to the indigenous movement because “they represent a platform for interacting with governments and with the communities themselves”.
As defined in the 1969 Vienna Convention, an international instrument is any agreement executed between two or more States or subjects of international law that creates legal obligations for its signatories. As advocacy tools for the defence of our rights, we Indigenous Women use instruments such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Sustainable Development Objectives or Recommendations, and others.
These instruments came to be thanks to years of work led by Indigenous Women and organizations in the face of a colonial and patriarchal framework, as explained by Victoria Tauli Corpuz, leader of the Kankana-ey Igorot people of the Philippines. Having held high positions in the United Nations system, including that of UN Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples until last year, she recalled how the negotiation table for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was “a space dominated by men”.
“There were a few very strong women on the Declaration’s drafting committee, and the inclusion of articles 21 and 22, which make direct reference to Indigenous Women, was not easy, as we faced the resistance of some men.” She also recalled how a member of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica – COICA) told her: “Vicky, make a decision: you can either advocate for the respect of the cultural rights of Indigenous Peoples, or just insist on the rights of Indigenous Women.”
Tauli-Corpuz emphasized that both rights are collective rights and are not mutually exclusive. Fortunately, there is now parity between women and men in the UN Permanent Forum for the rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as in the Expert Mechanism.
Achievements and Challenges
Tauli-Corpuz gave some examples of how Indigenous Women make use of these international instruments. She mentioned the case of Canadian Sandra Lovelace who, in 1977, went to the Human Rights Committee to reclaim her citizenship as a Maliseet indigenous woman, which had been denied to her for marrying a non-indigenous man. Lovelace filed a petition with the Human Rights Committee, arguing that the law only deprived women of their indigenous status, and won.
Her case represented an important step toward eliminating gender discrimination in Canadian law, all while challenging the traditional gender hierarchy within the Maliseet tribe itself.
Lovelace’s example has been followed by other Indigenous Women from Canada to Thailand to Australia. “Even when faced with obstacles and adversity, we can defend our rights collectively, by going to the United Nations or through litigation to obtain recognition. Even though open cases can trail for many years in court, it is necessary and very important for Indigenous Women to continue to make ourselves seen by bringing our issues to the table. As Indigenous Women, we need to work more on policies for our own benefit and autonomy,” said Sandra Creamer, executive director of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance (NATSIWA).
In her country, Australia, Indigenous Peoples are not recognized in the Constitution and the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has become an indispensable tool and legal framework in the fight for their rights, including the recognition of their lands and territories and their rights to water, health and security.
Creamer highlighted that Indigenous Peoples in Australia today account for the majority of plaintiffs in human rights cases, thanks to which they are achieving legislative changes, even managing to have a referendum held to have the Constitution recognize their rights as Indigenous Peoples.
Jannie Lasimbang, former Deputy Minister of State of Malaysia, considers international instruments as tools to achieve change in governments, even though she recognizes that there is a lot of resistance within the States and the public sector. As an Indigenous politician from the Kadazan people, in the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, they resort to these treaties as they advocate for at least 30% of public positions in Malaysia to be filled by women.
One of the lessons learned, she said, has to do with the importance of training for Indigenous Women, especially the younger ones, “so they can get involved in politics and thus make sure all points of view are included”.
Lasimbang is also very engaged in the struggle for the eradication of child marriage, and thanks to the international rights framework they obtained a formal commitment from the Malaysian Government. In 2020, the latter presented a five-year strategic plan including initiatives to build awareness and empowerment, but these have now been postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Political Participation and Advocacy
From Peru, former Quechua congresswoman Tania Pariona insisted that participation in the spaces of power is essential to reshape the asymmetric power relations that prevail in national states as a result of colonialism. “My parliamentary experience has taught me that if our voice is not present in Parliament, in those decision-making spaces, our aspirations fall short and our dreams and visions are excluded from important laws and constitutional reforms,” she affirmed.
Pariona laments that, at the moment, the only way to get seats in parliament is through political parties. She calls for Indigenous Peoples to organize at the state level and implement internal and open election mechanisms to achieve that representation in a different way. Like Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, she also insisted that the specific recommendations on Indigenous Women be a global collective demand, for which “we must build a diverse alliance with the different social movements, and start raising our voices and showing our faces from our own territories”.
For Pariona, 25 years after the Beijing Declaration, “it is necessary to take stock” of the situation today, because the inequality gaps that need to be corrected still persist in areas such as access to technology, investment in empowerment programs for Indigenous Women, and access to Higher Education opportunities.
“To be included in a formal International Recommendation is a great achievement, but we need to work on its actual implementation so that it is recognized at the local level, through the promotion of laws and rules with an intercultural, intersectional approach; and so we can see these recommendations come to life in the form of public policies, with their own budget and human resources. Because the most important thing is to improve the living conditions of women and communities,” she added.
According to Eleanor P. Dictaan-Bang-oa, a good indicator of Indigenous Women’s growing international advocacy capacity is “this World Conference, as a living demonstration of all the struggles, of all the efforts that have been made to advance the rights of Indigenous Women in decision-making spaces, from local to global”.
Even so, activists are aware that many countries, such as India, still do not recognize the international instruments despite having signed them. A special mention was also made for Indigenous Women challenging authoritarian regimes, and for the situation in Afghanistan.
In addition, a warning was issued to the fact that the ratification of a treaty by a given State does not directly translate into the State actually implementing said treaty. That is why we inform women of their use, of how the complaints and claims mechanisms work, how to file reports backed by data, and how to challenge processes that do not put their issues on the table.
“Sometimes we are going to lose, but there will also be times of victory. Although the path is full of hurdles, we are winning on several fronts and this conference is a learning platform where we can learn about each other’s problems and listen to the solutions, because there can be nothing about us, without us,” concluded Australian Sandra Creamer.