Violence against Indigenous Women Examined at UN Conference

By Talia Whyte
Special to Global Wire

The plight of indigenous women was a critical topic of discussion at the fiftieth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW50), which took place at United Nations headquarters in New York from February 27 to March 10. The conference marked 60 years of UN officials and NGO representatives working together on issues of gender equality, development, and peace.

Indigenous rights, particularly indigenous women’s rights, historically have not been discussed to a large extent within the international human rights community. The CSW is working to change this.

"[Indigenous women] face the worst of discrimination for both their gender and ethnic background," said Mirian Masaquiza, the associate social affairs officer for the secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Discrimination is even more common when violence is involved. Indigenous women face discrimination when they attempt to report crimes, as frequently the crimes are committed by police or other authorities who are not sympathetic to indigenous rights.

"Violence against indigenous women continues to be higher than violence against other groups of women," explained Christine Brautigam, Chief of the Women’s Rights Section of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), which is part of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. "We want to identify ways states can prevent violence against women."

Brautigam said that the UN is preparing a study to examine rates of violence against all women, but special attention will be given to indigenous women. The UN estimates that one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, forced into sex, or abused in some form in her lifetime, usually by someone she knows.

"The issue of gender and indigenous violence has been coming up for a long time," said Elsa Stamatopoulou, Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. "It is a close issue to the Secretariat."

Violence against indigenous women is a product of systematic exploitation and expropriation of their ancestral homelands, which are a source of their cultural identity and wealth. Gender-based violence traditionally has been used as a weapon in colonial conquests throughout the world.

In Kenya, the legacy of British colonialism continues to be seen throughout the country. At least 1,400 indigenous Samburu women were raped by British soldiers stationed in their lands during the 1980s and 1990s.

"It is a common practice of men committing violence against women in the villages," said Ruth Emanikor of the Indigenous Information Network in Kenya. "Women are afraid to go to human rights training. Most women are not given permission by their husbands to go to training. If they do go, they are beaten. Women also don’t have rights to property when their husbands die."

Today the Samburu women have declared their village a Violence-Against-Women-Free Zone. The group was formed in the early 1990s by 15 women who became homeless because they were abandoned by their husbands after being raped. Last year the group, which is known as Umoja, brought a case against the British military for the rapes.

Umoja also provides physical protection and safe housing to female survivors of violence. The women regularly band together to confront and chase away their former abusers.

The group is demanding an anti-violence unit in the local police station and training for women police officers to address gender-based violence. Umoja is also demanding proper medical treatment for survivors of violence.

"Violence against women is a form of terrorism, and we should be discussing how this affects women’s lives," said Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. "Respecting human rights is an obligation of the state. We want justice for all women."


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