Human Rights

Putting Rights into Practice: Addressing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Since the 1990s, more emphasis has been placed on securing the rights of historically neglected and marginalized groups, including the indigenous communities in Latin America and elsewhere. Indigenous people number about 370 million in some 70 countries. They frequently have inadequate access to clean water and other resources and may be pushed into fragile or degraded ecosystems. Compared to the general population of their countries, they have higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, less access to education and limited participation in the government and social systems that affect their lives

Fortunately, an international human rights framework that has been evolving since the 1990s offers greater protection for these vulnerable groups. In the last decade, legally-binding conventions, world programmes of action, the international human rights treaty bodies and special rapporteurs have brought increasing attention and protections to advance their rights.

Practical guidelines and human rights standards for implementation of national policies and programmes have been developed. In some regions, such as in Africa, Asia and the Americas, specific conventions and forums focusing on the rights of indigenous people have highlighted discrimination against these groups. Civil society networks have mobilized and established advocacy groups to protect their rights. The International Indigenous Women's Forum, for instance, is a platform for advocacy and mobilization on their rights.

UNFPA at work

Much of UNFPA's work on the rights of indigenous peoples is focused in the Latin America and the Caribbean region. For instance, UNFPA contributed to the participation of 21 indigenous women from eight South American countries in the Beijing +10 Summit review and in the 4th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May, 2005.

In Brazil, UNFPA provided support to a 2005 report, Satere-Mawe, The Portrait of an Indigenous People, conducted with the active participation of the native Brazilians. It is a preliminary analysis of conditions affecting some 8,500 people whose traditional way of life is being eroded by economic pressures and the devastation of large parts of the Amazon.

Bolivia is home to some 35 different indigenous groups, many of whom live in remote mountainous areas. For many years UNFPA has supported a literacy project that reaches indigenous women with content on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality. Through the project, more than 120,000 indigenous women have learned about reproductive rights, safe motherhood, prevention of violence, and gender equality and equity. The project has emphasized the respect for traditional values and beliefs, promoting the relevance of cultural diversity, participation and dialogue.

In Ecuador, UNFPA provided technical and financial support for Jambi Huasi and the Ministry of Health to organize an international seminar on the application of an intercultural perspective to maternal health.

In Panama, the Fund worked with the Government and indigenous women's associations to improve access to quality sexual and reproductive health care, integrating a human rights perspective as well as a respect for cultural norms and beliefs about reproductive health.

In Paraguay, UNFPA has been carrying out interesting initiatives with indigenous people, applying a crosscutting ethnic, gender and generational perspective. For example, a study on the Mbya, who were traditionally hunters and gatherers, is being conducted, and includes a systematization of Mbya's experiences in sexual and reproductive health care, their myths and culture. Community participation, especially that of Mbya male midwives and traditional women midwives is being incorporated into this research.

In a speech at the 2007 UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Director of the Asia and the Pacific region at UNFPA outlined some of the programmes for indigenous people that are taking place in that region.