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Indigenous women are raising their voices and can no longer be ignored

October 14, 2015

By: Ligia Recinos


As a teenager, I joined fellow indigenous activists on Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, to protest against the Chico dam project. The scheme would have displaced roughly 300,000 indigenous people from their ancestral lands. The leaders of the movement were all men, but women were also on the front line, risking their lives.

These were our lands too, and we women fought to defend them even when our activities were criminalized by the Filipino government. We didn’t give up until the government and the World Bank cancelled the project.

Since then, I have witnessed indigenous women around the world standing up for their rights, demanding that their voices be heard and refusing to back down.

Indigenous women face myriad challenges. We are often systematically excluded from the decision-making processes that affect us, and we contend with discrimination, poverty and violence. Indigenous men face many of the same issues, but they are amplified for women, who face discrimination for their gender as well as race.

Insecure land rights are at the root of many of these problems for women. While indigenous people worldwide struggle to secure their collective and individual land and resource rights, customary and statutory laws typically restrict indigenous women’s access to land. Even in countries that legally recognize equal rights, indigenous women are less likely than men to hold titles to their land.

Indigenous women are often responsible for their families’ food security, especially as more men move to cities, making resource discrimination particularly hard on them. Many can only access land through marriage, which limits their economic and personal choice and makes it difficult for them to secure credit on their own.

Without secure rights, women are highly vulnerable to land-grabbing and forced relocation by governments and corporations. Large scale land grabs for rubber and palm oil plantations in Indonesia, for example, transformed indigenous women from self-sufficient landowners to low-paid factory and domestic workers.

Such land grabs are often accompanied by violence. Extraction industries can bring with them increased crime and even sex trafficking, and women may be threatened to coerce indigenous communities into abandoning their lands. Those who resist land grabs often face state-sanctioned violence. Gang rape, sexual enslavement, and murder of women have all been used to control indigenous populations.

Corporations rarely take responsibility for these violations, and many governments put corporate interests before those of indigenous women. Language barriers, illiteracy and, most significantly, the refusal of those in power to prosecute crimes against them make it difficult for indigenous women to access justice. When Filipino armed forces killed a 28-year old indigenous female leader, Juvy Caption, for protesting against a mine in her territory, the trial was dismissed.

Of course, endemic violence against indigenous women is not exclusively related to land grabs – it is a persistent global problem. In Canada, First Nations’ women are four times more likely to be murdered. My predecessor James Anaya recommended that the government launch a nationwide inquiry, but no action has yet been taken.

To address this issue as well as the numerous other challenges facing indigenous women, our voices need to be heard at every level, from the community to the international, on issues that affect us. We must be made equal partners and our right to self-determination must be recognized and respected.

Governments can begin by recognizing indigenous women as co-owners, alongside indigenous men, of the lands they collectively own and cultivate. Companies and governments should stop using violence to quell indigenous resistance and gain indigenous women’s free, prior, and informed consent before making use of their lands.

After all, when land rights are secure, women are better equipped to provide for themselves and their families. They earn up to 3.8 times more income and devote more money to savings and education. Their children are less likely to be malnourished, and they experience less violence – including up to eight times less domestic violence.

Secure land rights also help indigenous women to continue their vital role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Indigenous women are the main transmitters of indigenous cultural values and worldviews. Many use traditional knowledge passed down through the generations to steward the world’s remaining forests. Deforestation rates are dramatically lower in forests managed by indigenous people and local communities, and in many parts of the world, such as south-east Asia, it is women who are primarily responsible for sustainable resource management.

Unfortunately, international initiatives and national strategies aimed at mitigating climate change can also be a threat to indigenous women; some have been kicked off their land in the name of conservation or renewable energy projects. For mitigation and adaption strategies to succeed, indigenous women must be made part of the decision-making process and their conservation successes must be recognized and supported. Secure land rights will also help prevent strategies such as REDD+ from becoming yet another reason to dispossess women of their customary lands.

Recognizing an entire community’s right to its ancestral territories is more effective than recognizing land rights for individuals, as the latter makes it easier for predatory industries and governments to steal land piece by piece. But communities can be discriminatory as well. It is important that laws recognizing community tenure ensure women’s rights. “Custom” does not grant immunity to those who marginalize and abuse women.

We have come a long way since we stood up to the Filipino government, but our voices are still too often ignored, even within our communities. Governments, corporate actors, and international organizations must recognize our role in the fight for global land rights, and the contributions we make to preserve the world’s precious resources.


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