Activists say indigenous women are still absent in Latin American politics

(Credit: Latin America for Less/Flickr)

The indigenous rights movement has made significant strides in Latin America over the last few decades, but indigenous women across the continent remain sorely underrepresented in political decision-making.

Indigenous activists brought this problem into the spotlight during the First Congress of Indigenous Parliamentarians of America (IPA) held in Panama last week, calling for continued progress in the representation of indigenous women in politics.

The congress, organized by the IPA and the United Nations Development Program, had representatives from 18 countries across the continent, including Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela.

Nicaraguan parliamentarian Evelyn Patricia was one of the spokeswoman who highlighted the underrepresentation of women in political spheres. Nicaragua is among the top 10 nations in the world for having the highest female representation in parliament, along with the Latin American countries Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia, which leads the region in female parliamentary representation.

In spite of the nation’s progress, Patricia said to Spanish news agency Efe, women need to continue to make progress if they are to see true political parity.

“Before, women were seen as objects, not as thinking beings,” she said. “Now, we have equal rights and opportunities, and must change our roles [in society].”

Many women in Latin America face discrimination when it comes to maintaining even basic human rights. This discrimination is even more of an obstacle for indigenous women, and still more magnified for indigenous women who are poor, creating what some have called the threat of “triple discrimination.”

Worse still is the outlook for these populations in the countries of the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), which are notorious for their appallingly high homicide rates targeting indigenous women and activists.

There have been numerous international treaties, advocacy groups and conventions created to protect and promote indigenous rights. However, while such efforts are important, indigenous women are still barred from political parity by deeply rooted social stigmas that aren’t soon going to disappear. Social stigma is perhaps the biggest barrier facing indigenous women, but is critical to overcome if they are to be included in the decision-making processes that often directly affect their communities.

“The first hurdle limiting the indigenous woman is the ancient and patriarchal culture,” said Irune Aguirrezabal, from the Regional Office of the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, who also attended the Congress, Efe reported. “Indigenous communities should promote the achievement of substantive equality, which involves combating stereotypes and discrimination.”

Aguirrezabal added that the U.N. is working on a leadership project aimed at indigenous women to learn about their rights and have a greater impact in their communities. Activists have encouraged indigenous women to do so by taking part in national conversations on issues affecting their communities, such as armed conflict, education reform, public health, and sexual and reproductive health.

About 50 million people in the Americas – or 12.76 percent of the American population, according to World Bank figures – identify as indigenous. Ninety percent of this population lives in Latin America.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com