Human Rights

Forum: Indigenous Women in Latin America

Empowerment in Reproductive Rights: UNFPA’s contribution to Indigenous Women in Latin America

Front row, left to right: Her Excellency Madame Chantal Compaor, Safiye Cagar, Dr. Sayeba Akhter, Dr. Arletty Pinel. Photo: Ephrem Cruz/UNFPA

Each May, indigenous people – from the Inuits and Saami of the North to the Maori and the Mayans and the Aymaras of the South – converge at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to talk about shared concerns, aspirations and strategies. Throughout the world, these ‘first peoples’ find their languages, their values, their environments, and, in some cases their very lives, under threat. In every region, indigenous people are among the poorest, most socially excluded and discriminated against groups.

At the Fifth Session of the Permanent Forum, a UNFPA-sponsored event called attention to important intercultural initiatives taking place in Latin America. These projects focus on improving access of indigenous people to reproductive health, taking into account the importance of cultural values in dealing with this sensitive sphere of life.

Although overall progress toward the Millennium Development Goals in the Americas has been encouraging, wide gaps remain between national averages and the situation of indigenous groups. Data capturing the full measure of these inequities are scarce, but it is known that indigenous people fare poorly in terms of income, education, literacy and maternal and infant mortality. The stress of poverty, as well as a clash of cultures, often leaves indigenous women subject to gender-based violence, despite indigenous traditions of balance and shared lives between men and women.

Below are some highlights from the panel discussion, which featured some of the key players in several UNFPA-supported efforts. They described work in the intercultural medical clinic, Jambi Huasi; the Bilingual Literacy Programme of Bolivia; a programme to reduce maternal mortality among Mexican migrants; and a network linking indigenous people in South America.

Marisela Padron-Quero
Director, Latin America and the Caribbean Division
From her remarks on behalf of UNFPA to the Fifth Session

“Indigenous peoples carry a fragile but essential part of our common humanity. As individuals and societies, they represent an irreplaceable diversity. Participation in development should not mean absorption into the mainstream – on the contrary, our task is to ensure that the human rights and human potential of indigenous people receive the needed attention; that development policies recognize the unique contribution and capacity of indigenous peoples; that policymakers understand the Millennium Development Goals and the concept of development in ways which support and engage with indigenous culture, and that we become partners in a common enterprise.”

“We in UNFPA are committed to an inclusive concept of development, which will benefit all sections of the population. We see our work with indigenous people as part of a regional and national agenda of social protection and inclusion. We recognize at the same time the validity of a range of understandings and approaches, including those of women, the young, indigenous people and people who are simultaneously members of more than one of these categories. We pledge all our efforts to help establish and enhance the capacity for autonomous decision-making in a harmonious national and international context, so that the Millennium Development Goals become a reality among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. more..

Tarcila Rivera Zea
Coordinator of the Network of Indigenous Women of South America

Ms. Zea discussed a UNFPA Regional Initiative highlighting that promotes the participation and networking among indigenous women leaders and organizations. Her discussion centred on the critical importance of being engaged in the political process.

“We indigenous women of the Americas have started down the road to coordination as a basic strategy to raise the profile and position of the demands of indigenous women at the international level, taking their most representative expression from their first Continental Meeting in 1995 in Quito, an event that received commitment and support from UNFPA. The proposals drafted on that occasion began to circulate and later became the Declaration of Indigenous Women. The ties formed in 1995 with UNFPA have grown; this relationship has turned into sustained support.”

“We are taking advantage of the Indigenous Forum to listen to each other and to listen to our sisters. We realize there is still a long road to go down to achieve respect and dignity for indigenous women. We need to build an inclusive network that can persist over time.”

“We want to highlight UNFPA’s support for involving us in the political process. It’s necessary to be present when policies are designed and implemented. This is indispensable. Indigenous men and women are beginning to view UNFPA as an ally.”

“We want our faces to appear in plans as well as in photos."

Dr. Myriam Conejo
One of the founders of Jambi Huasi

Jambi Huasi means ‘Health House’ in English. To the indigenous people who take advantage of the community-based health clinic, it means access to both Western and traditional medicines, and to health providers who understand their language and world view. The intercultural strategies implemented through this initiative have been a powerful lever for women’s health and empowerment in Otavalo, Ecuador.

“Jambi Huasi represents a response from indigenous groups to the right to health. It respects the cosmological vision of local people regarding health that goes beyond just the physical. It respects different beliefs and address people in different language. It also is offered at a low cost for users.

“An intercultural approach must respect the heterogeneity of people. Quality of service must reflect social and cultural differences, including the different gender dynamics.”

Monica Yaksic
Gender and Intercultural Specialist, UNFPA, who spoke on behalf of Mirtha Paco, an indigenous leader who was prevented from attending because of visa problems.  

The Bilingual Literacy Programme of Bolivia teaches men and women to read and write, in both Spanish and Quecha, using content about reproductive and maternal health and gender equity. They learn, for example, contraceptive methods, about maternal-child health insurance, where to get Pap tests and  how to prevent children’s diseases. UNFPA has supported similar programmes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

“Something as basic as learning to sign your own name can be empowering, can change self esteem.”

“The area most controlled by cultures is sexuality, mainly women’s bodies. Shame about these topics makes communication on sexual and reproductive health difficult. But discussion of women’s issues has forged bonds of solidarity and communication.”

“We’ve learned through the programme that adopting new ideas that will change gender dynamics within the family and the culture is a slow and complex process because it calls existing relationships into question.” 

“The empowerment of women threatens men – that’s why we invite them into the literacy programme. We want to show them that empowerment can actually lead to better relationships. Activities must be developed for men, because in addressing STIs, violence, and closely spaced pregnancies, men play a decisive role.”

“Education for adults must work in an integral way, and address topics that can improve their quality of life.”

“Barriers fall down when we engage in intercultural dialogue.”

"Reciprocity is very important in our culture. The indigenous groups talk about harmony of men and their environment. If we had engaged in serious intercultural dialog earlier we could have saved ourselves a lot of problems – to move forward in a more balanced way." 

Luisa Jimena Avellaneda
Representing Casa de la Mujer ‘Rosario Castellanos’

With the support of UNFPA, Casa de la Mujer ‘Rosario Castellanos’ created a model for reducing maternal mortality among hard-to-reach migrant women. The successful project has since been institutionalized in the states of Oaxaca and Sinaloa and promoted in other areas of high female migration. The “Step by Step” guide to childbirth offers important health messages in simple language with illustrations for clarity. The programme also has implemented an ad campaign and a training manual for extension workers.

 “Some 60,000 families travel 3,000 miles from southern to northern Mexico every six months. Their level of poverty forces them to migrate to survive. The women tend to drop out of school, marry young and have many children as a way gaining social recognition. Violence against women is widespread, both domestic abuse and sexual harassment in the fields.”

“We’ve achieved a 50 per cent increase in prenatal visits, and a 25 per cent increase in knowledge of family planning methods.”

Nina Pacari
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ecuador, and Member of the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues

“It’s clear that within the UN system, the window of opportunity for indigenous people has been opened a little wider, the dimension of indigenous people has achieved greater social and political recognition over the last ten years in Latin America. But we’re only at the beginning. We need a clear idea of what interculturality mean, a better understanding of the codes and realities of one another.”

“Our new report [ Health Indicators of Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador] is an important initial effort. But we need to go further. We need to put a stethoscope up to the indicators to find out why they are what they are, and which indicators are most relevant."

Related Features

Related Links