Increased access to social services a priority among indigenous women

– problems common across region
Increasing access to social services is among the priorities identified by indigenous women leaders in the region as key to empowerment, against a backdrop of development.

Participants at the ‘Conference on Indigenous Women in the Caribbean: Voice, Participation and Influence for Development’ that opened last Thursday found that many of their problems were the same. These include poverty, limited access to health, education and other basic social services, while trying to secure recognition of traditional land and rights. Another issue is gender-based violence. One of the challenges facing the conference was creating room for women’s rights in the context of the collective indigenous rights. The two-day meeting was organized by the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs and United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). It attracted a cross section of government and civil society participants from Belize, Dominica, Guyana, Suriname, Nicaragua and St Vincent.

Speaking at a press briefing on Friday shortly before the end of the conference, Roberta Clarke, Regional Programme Director of UNIFEM Caribbean Office, said that despite progress across the region, indigenous women still face many disadvantages. She said the conference found that geography has a severe impact on how indigenous women access basic social services in addition to infrastructure. “Many indigenous women live in conditions of hardship,” Clarke said, adding that the situation was exacerbated by the failure of schools to be culturally responsive when they are accessible. Instead, they are geared towards urban centres, with curricula often irrelevant to people in indigenous areas.

Clarke also identified the perpetuation of harmful gender-based stereotypes in indigenous communities as another area that needs to be addressed. In fact, she pointed out that the seeds of gender equality are embedded in the traditional indigenous culture.

In this regard, she also emphasised that while there are specific issues that indigenous women face, they are also commonalities that they share with women in general. Among them is the little representation they have in their countries’ political leadership. In some countries there are no women represented in the parliament.

Clarke said the conference provided a forum for the sharing of best practices, while learning from each other’s mistakes. She added that UNIFEM would use the outcome to shape its programme in the Caribbean and would work in partnerships to realize the agreed priorities.

Amerindian Affairs Minister Pauline Sukhai pointed out that while governments think they have done all that is possible for women, there remains segments for which more has to be done, like indigenous women.

She also drew attention to the recurring themes among disparate peoples, including the need for land rights, better education and women’s rights. Sukhai was optimistic about developing strategic alliances among indigenous women across the region and to identify priorities for action.

Belizean Senator Pulcheria Tuel, who also represents the Toledo Maya Women’s Council, welcomed the deliberations as a starting point for an indigenous people’s agenda in her country. With the outcome of the conference, she vowed to use her influence in the senate to identify and address indigenous women’s issues, including poverty and violence. “For us to move forward,” she explained, “we must address these issues in the context of development.”

In this vein, Tuel saw the conference and its deliberations as a good opportunity to influence the development of a framework to address indigenous issues in Belize. “I believe our government is willing to give indigenous women more support and prepared to address indigenous women’s issues.”

Surinamese researcher Marie-Josee Artist emphasised the importance of countries learning from each other. (Guyana’s Amerindian Act and the constitutional Indigenous People’s Commission were cited as progressive initiatives.) Suriname, Artist noted, does not recognize traditional land rights for indigenous people and this has led to conflict between the authorities and indigenous groups, including women’s organizations. The intrusion of mining companies has also led to problems. Many indigenous and maroon women’s organizations in Suriname are looking for support, she said, but because of restricted access to their communities, donor agencies and NGOs interested in giving assistance often find their funds going largely to transportation costs.