Empowering indigenous women: big challenges, big opportunities

By Monica Romano

There must have been a rich and articulated discussion at the plenary session during which the indigenous peoples representatives agreed on the Synthesis of Deliberations, since the following session on opportunities for indigenous women had to start a bit in delay! Certainly, the final outcome of the discussion that will be presented to the IFAD Governing Council will have benefited from the longer time. But this constrained somehow the debate around increasing opportunities for indigenous women as key actors for indigenous peoples’ well-being. Still, the interventions from the three panelists from different developing regions, facilitated by Clare Bishop-Sambrook, IFAD Senior Technical Adviser for Gender and Social Inclusion, were so powerful and inspiring. And hopefully, the debate and follow-up will continue, both in the coming days during the GC and through IFAD-supported interventions in future.  

What was common to the presentations made by the three indigenous women panelists was that indigenous women often face disproportionate challenges and constraints, compared to the still persistent gender inequalities that “normally” affect “the other half of heaven”. At the same time, indigenous women are the holders of an immense traditional knowledge, are the “trait d’union” between spiritual and economic activities under the natural environments they live in, and – like all women – are the caretakers of the most vulnerable people in the society – namely the children, the youth and the elderly.

Agnes Leina, from Ll’ laramatak Community Concerns (Africa), described the plight that the Masaai women find themselves in. They have no rights nor own land and livestock neither can buy and sell them. Still, women are those that feed the community. Under the conditions of pressure for the Masaai to change their lifestyles and livelihood development modalities, the rush for getting land to be transformed into wildlife reserves and national parks, and climate change, women are those suffering the most. When men move elsewhere to copy with these challenges, women remain behind, also to look after the children and the elderly. Illiteracy, early marriage and female genital mutilations add to the specific challenges faced by the Masaai women.

I started feeling discouraged by all that, but fortunately Anima Pushpa Toppo, from Jharkhand Jangal Bachao Andolan (Asia), highlighted some strengths of tribal women in India. Women hold an intimate and special relationship with forests, which are at the basis of the spiritual, cultural and economic life of tribal communities. Forests have always been a source of empowerment of tribal women. Anima also noted that women are also the backbone of traditional knowledge, which is then passed on to younger generations and is an invaluable tool for developing adaptation and NRM strategies in response to environmental shocks and other changes. As a way forward towards tribal women’s empowerment, local institutions (such as Gram Sabha, women groups, youth groups, cultural groups) should be strengthened and community-based resource management should be promoted, while enhancing women’s participation and rights.

I was proud to hear reference to IFAD’s good practices from IFAD projects in the intervention by Myrna Cunningham, from UNPFII (Latin America and the Caribbean). She referred among others to the valorization of traditional production practices, the focus on women’s organizations, the promotion of inter-generational dialogue, and the development of solidarity networks to facilitate women’s participation. When she talked about the need for gathering information for any intervention so that it is disaggregated by gender and ethnic groups, or when she pointed out that there are huge gender gaps within indigenous communities, I felt this to be an invitation for us at IFAD to do even better in project design.

The key role that indigenous women play in local institutions is the last, but not least, thing I want to highlight here. I think this is another pressing invitation to us to invest in those institutions and capacitate them, while making them more inclusive, through the participation of women, including those from indigenous and ethnic minority groups.