Press Release: The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: Statement by Prof. Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences
Wednesday, August 22, 2007 4:07 PM

United Nations Press Release
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: Statement by Prof. Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences
18 May 2007 New York
Madam Chairperson, distinguished delegates, representatives of indigenous peoples, friends and colleagues.

It is with great pleasure that I address the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, for the second time, in my capacity as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

I wish to begin by acknowledging that the Permanent Forum, which emerged within the context of the UN Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004), has made significant contributions to bringing about greater awareness with respect to the situation of indigenous peoples worldwide. It has also provided a platform for paying tribute to the many known and unknown indigenous women and men who have resisted and struggled against systematic oppression of indigenous peoples throughout "civilized" history.
While some progress has been achieved over the last decade in the acknowledgement and promotion of rights of indigenous peoples, there are two areas where progress is lagging:

(i) Equal participation of indigenous peoples in social, cultural, economic and political life in their respective countries.
Around the world the marginalization and dispossession of indigenous peoples continues to be a reality, as they are uprooted from their lands and communities due to discriminatory government policies, impact of armed conflicts, and actions of private social, political and economic interest groups. Infrastructural projects undertaken in the context of modernization and the more recent initiatives prompted by privatization and deregulation have often resulted in pushing indigenous people deeper into poverty and marginalization. During my official missions to countries where indigenous communities exist, I have seen that poverty is disproportionately concentrated among indigenous people, even in countries where they make up a numerical majority. This reality is clearly reflected in the significant gap between indigenous and non-indigenous populations with respect to all development indicators, including; life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, literacy, unemployment, among others.

The failure of states to ensure that indigenous peoples are part of an inclusive and egalitarian society has undermined the relatively recent international agenda for indigenous people's rights and reduced its principles nearly to what could be described as a "romanticized manufacture of indigenous identity". Most often, the pro-indigenous legislation that is adopted at national levels, while recognizing the rights of indigenous people to their own values and practices, rarely if ever make reference to the issue of entitlements and access to justice, which are prerequisites for the continued existence of indigenous people in accordance with their values.

Such approaches not only fall short of addressing the structural causes of indigenous marginalization, exclusion and poverty but in some cases works to the disadvantage of weak and marginalized groups within indigenous communities, including women.

(ii) Recognition of gender specific discrimination encountered by indigenous women within and outside of their communities.

Indigenous women stand at the intersection of gender and racial inequality; they are discriminated against because they are women and because they are members of an indigenous group. In this respect, indigenous women experience at least five layers of discrimination: on the basis of sex, ethnicity, poverty, often being rural and increasingly as migrants. As a result, they face a dual task in their human rights struggle: one of defending their rights as members of an excluded group within a dominant society with its repressive or indifferent state apparatuses, discriminatory laws and institutions and prejudiced public opinion, while at the same time questioning and resisting the static patriarchal perceptions of culture and tradition within their own communities, which are used to justify gendered subordination and violence.

Experience has shown that greater autonomy for indigenous communities do not necessarily result in ensuring the rights of indigenous women. It has also become well known that since women are not homogenous category gender equality strategies designed in a vacuum do not work. Failure to recognize the intersectional nature of systems of oppression and integrate a racial and gender perspective when analyzing indigenous women's status will ultimately result in further reinforcing their subordination to both patriarchy and racism. Therefore, in addressing the status of indigenous women, it is essential to identify racial elements of gender discrimination as well as the gendered elements of race discrimination.
The violence against indigenous women is rooted in the traditional patriarchal gender hierarchies of indigenous communities, ethnic stereotyping and discrimination in the wider society as well as in the relationship between the indigenous population and state institutions within the context of macro-political multiculturalism.

The high levels of violence against women documented within indigenous communities are often explained by the encroachment of colonial domination and assimilation policies which has eroded the gender-egalitarian traditions that is said to have once mediated against gender biases and sexual violence. Authorities in indigenous communities instrumentalize customary norms to condone domestic violence, particularly if women attempt to deviate from the masculine discourse and assert their own autonomous will. The general understanding that women often provoke domestic violence by failing to perform as expected legitimizes violence as a disciplinary and corrective tool. The Beijing Declaration of Indigenous Women, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women by indigenous women, attributes domestic violence and increasing suicide rates among indigenous women, particularly among those who are in highly industrialized countries, to alienation and assimilationist policies of these countries (para. 14).

In most cases indigenous women resort to national law in their struggle to overcome marginalization in their own communities and challenge the multiple normative practices that have been homogenized as "traditional." However, the state legal and justice system is also shaped by patriarchal conceptions of gender relations and are embedded in prejudicial conceptions of indigenous communities. Therefore, there is a tendency to perceive violence against indigenous women as an inherent component of their culture, which naturally obstructs justice. Both state law and custom demand that indigenous women conform to "traditionally" ascribed behavior.

The insufficient protection offered by the state justice system, often due to essentialist biases, makes indigenous women also vulnerable to violence perpetrated by persons outside their own communities, in some circumstances by State agents. They are often seen as an easy target of violence or sexual harassment, because their access to justice is limited and the perpetrators can therefore expect impunity.

In conflict zones, the reports about soldiers raping indigenous women with impunity are particularly alarming. For example, the extent to which indigenous Twa women have been subjected to violence during the armed conflicts in the African Great Lakes region has still not been sufficiently acknowledged. The Guatemala Commission for Historical Clarification (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico, CEH) in its 1999 report concluded that women and girls had been raped and in some cases gang raped during massacres of the Mayan population. Soldiers reportedly committed other acts of extreme cruelty against women, such as removing fetuses from pregnant women. Survivors still suffer trauma and health complications as a result of wartime violence. The conflict has left many women single parents, and families of the disappeared still searching for their loved ones.

Fear of reprisals, shame of stigmatization, illiteracy, linguistic barriers, condemnation by the community and the ensuing isolation to which women survivors of sexual violence have been subjected can be considered the main obstacles to women's access to reparation programmes.

Madam Chairperson,

Empirical and anecdotal evidence from around the world, including testimonies I have personally received from indigenous women, demonstrate that they confront many challenges, which by their nature are intersectional and multifaceted. This challenge, however, is not received passively. Indigenous women are developing strategies to counter the public and private forms of discrimination individually and collectively. Awareness-raising programmes and other projects implemented in remote communities are making an impact in supporting women's empowerment. I met prominent women leaders from indigenous communities who have made their voices heard at local, national and even international levels.

In addition, in some countries, indigenous women are also organizing and establishing micro-businesses and other self-help groups. These initiatives are crucial in laying the economic base for overcoming discrimination and the violence emanating from it. Programmes to support the productive organization of women such as that of the Mexican National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples are important contributions for addressing the root causes of violence against indigenous women.
Furthermore, indigenous women are facilitating dialogues between the indigenous movement, the human rights movement, and the global women's movement, therefore, linking their particular concerns with other struggles. In doing so, they have been careful not to separate their demands for women's rights from those of the rights of their people. Indigenous women do not reject their culture in the name of equality, but rather claim the right to their own culture while they fight for the creation of equitable relations inside their families, communities and organizations.

Ultimately, indigenous peoples' struggle for social justice on a human rights platform will only be legitimate and therefore successful, if human rights problems within the community, in particular violence and discrimination against women, are also acknowledged and addressed. The universal human rights culture and the existing international human rights instruments provide a framework within which the indigenous women's quest for equality, security and dignity for themselves as well as for their communities can be pursued and ensured.

Thank you for your attention.

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