The Fight For an Indigenous Female Voice in Latin America

Latin America (OpenDemocracy) – It was 1983. Rigoberta Menchú was only 24 when she began recounting her life experiences to anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos, a woman who would later launch her into a world of speeches and spotlights, far from the misty forests of her home in Laj Chimel, Guatemala.

Already a famous activist in Central America, her testimonial autobiography made her embroidered Mayan coronet internationally recognisable. She arguably became the first globally visible indigenous female political figure to come from Latin America.

It is now 2018 and the indigenous female influence in Latin America has surged, culminating in the historical landmark at which we currently stand today: Marichuy Patricio.

In the latter part of 2017, Marichuy Patricio registered herself as an independent candidate for the Mexican presidential elections, in hope of competing in July 2018 in a move that could have made her the first indigenous female presidential candidate of modern day Latin America.

Her birthplace, Tuxpan, is situated in Jalisco, one of the most prosperous states of Mexico. Despite the skyscrapers that fill hyper-modernised cities such as Guadalajara and Zapopan to the brim, in Patricio’s town, there was a lack of access to basic social services, namely healthcare, when she was growing up – it was for these very reasons she took on the profession of a natural healer.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) alongside the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) have supported Patricio as the contender to represent the interests of the indigenous population of Mexico who, although are a patchwork of cultural diversity, are united in their fight against the negative effects that racism, globalisation, urbanisation and industrialisation has had on their communities.

Marichuy’s move to become the first indigenous candidate to the Mexican presidency is a sign of how far this decades-long mobilisation has come, but how did we get to this point?

The beginning of a movement  

Testimonial literature and its ability to reach international audiences made a success of figures such as Rigoberta Menchú and Domitilia Barrios, but it was the organisation of indigenous women, and the Zapatista revolution in Chiapas in 1994 that provoked a new era of political participation and empowered them to fight as individuals in their own right.

The beginning of the indigenous cultural renaissance of Latin America can be traced back to the 1970s. A movement driven by younger, educated members of communities who had integrated into wider society but then sought to reaffirm their indigenous identities, this paved the way for the formation of grass roots organizations that promoted collective action in defence of indigenous rights.

This movement was enabled by mounting support from the catholic church alongside increases in levels of education and urbanisation, and its goals ranged from protecting native languages to involving indigenous voices in national political processes. These groups were often male dominated however, and they did not speak to the specific needs of the female members of their communities.

This renaissance provided the catalyst for the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. And it was this uprising that turned indigenous women into political actors that became more visible than ever before. Guiomar Rovira’s Mujeres de maízis overflowing with female testimonies of women who took part in the mobilization as the driving force that made the uprising possible.

The EZLN was famous for educating the women who fought for them and for providing female fighters with rights that were out of reach within their communities. They were taught Spanish, History, Politics by academics sympathetic to the cause, and most importantly were given a socially conscious education that sought to instil values that indigenous women were capable of more than just childbearing.

They were allowed to sit captaincy exams and were given leadership positions, empowering them both physically and mentally, and challenging stereotypical misconceptions of the weak and inferior indigenous woman.

Within the Zapatista revolution there was a micro-revolution brewing that with time would only become more potent. The Women’s Revolutionary Law was an impressive manifesto proposed by female leaders within the EZLN that enshrined women’s rights into the guiding text of the territory.

It was the first ever law of its kind produced by an indigenous organisation in Latin America that included proposals on how to achieve a fairer treatment of women. It included considerations such as a right to education, a right to work for a fair salary, a right to a life free from gender based violence and relevant to some community customs, a right to choose a partner and not be forced into marriage. This was a revolution of resolute minds and resilient spirits rather than of bullets and combat boots, but a revolution nonetheless.

Suddenly, there was a surge in female indigenous organizations across the hemisphere consisting of women inspired by the EZLN and how they combined the concerns of indigenous women into a wider pro-indigenous framework. Although the term continues to be used cautiously by indigenous women’s groups, it provoked a certain type of indigenous feminism.

This movement was about celebrating indigenous culture, but also accepting there are problems with machismo inside their own communities that they must simultaneously fight against.

By Julian Stallabrass from London, UK – IMG006a-sm, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 1995, various female indigenous leaders from Latin America were invited to participate in the ground-breaking UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where they passed and signed the Declaration of Indigenous Women, asserting their rights to protection from the forces of both neo-colonialism and misogyny from within and out with their cultural groups.

From this stemmed the International Forum of Indigenous Women, a product of discussions between female indigenous leaders at the conference, and now the most esteemed international political organization of its kind due to its alliance with the UN. Created in 2000, it acts as a space where indigenous women gather to coordinate and discuss political strategy, whilst additionally providing support to empower indigenous women within their communities.

The growth of political visibility has also inevitably had a national impact, and the likes of the National Organization for Indigenous Women of the Andes and the Amazon of Peru has become a tour de force in their own national law making process. They participated in the political process throughout the creation of the Ley de Consulta Previa, a Peruvian law that outlines the rights of indigenous communities, and have also participated in the 2014 UN Climate Change Conference held in Lima.

In Bolivia, a strong female indigenous presence took part in the drafting of the new Bolivarian constitution coordinated by the pro-indigenous government of Evo Morales. Indigenous women from the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia – Bartolina Sisa made up 45% of all women present at the Constituent Assembly.

Their presence at the negotiation table ensured that the new constitution condemned gender based violence, and that women be equally involved in national political processes through the adoption of the principle of alternation.

In Brazil, indigenous women are raising their voices on behalf of their communities and women such as Bel Jurana and Antonia Melo, are leading the current battle between their communities and the construction giants that have been working on the Belo Monte dam, as well as against a government that transferred demarcation powers of indigenous territory recently to congress (PEC215).

Melo is the founder of the XinguVivoParaSempre movement which raises awareness of issues caused by the construction of the dam and Jurana campaigns against the nutritional crisis caused by cutting off the river, which provided many individuals with their food supply.

A long way to go

In spite of these seemingly positive developments, some things remain the same – Menchú’s K’iche’ coronet, man’s insatiable desire to obliterate nature, and the barriers that stand in the way of indigenous women participating genuinely, fairly and equally in political processes.

A UN study showed that between 2012 and 2015, 14 out of 500 lower house representatives in Mexico were indigenous and only 4 of those were women. In Guatemala, 19 out of 158 parliamentarians were indigenous and only 3 were women between 2012 and 2016. In Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua, the scenario is much the same.

This confirms that although it may appear that indigenous women are at the forefront of a political revolution, they are far from overcoming the machismo of their brothers and fathers and the racism of their surroundings that prevent equal political representation from being achieved. 

Indigenous communities have been struggling for centuries against a cruel and unforgiving prejudice that has manifested itself institutionally, politically and socially throughout the region.

Ethnocide, term which exemplifies the treatment of indigenous populations in Latin America, refers to the attempt to destroy the cultural identity of a community, and it shares with genocide the desire to annihilate groups entirely. It only differs in that it may not always involve direct slaughter, but slaughter of the spirit, of the soul of the community, is often its main aim.

This has frequently manifested itself in the form of large scale mineral extraction/construction projects on indigenous land, a lack of social services to afford indigenous populations equal opportunities, and an indifference to crimes committed against them.

Indigenous communities make up roughly 8% of the population of Latin America, however they make up 15% of the destitute. And the women that birth and ensure the survival of these communities suffer the most.

Indigenous women must simultaneously fight two battles both equally energy consuming and at times conflicting; that against racism and misogyny.

Black feminist Kimberle Crenshaw believed that traditional feminism made no space for the experiences of marginalised women, thus introduced the concept of intersecting identities and multiple discriminations to conceptualise marginal experiences and create an inclusive framework.

Her work was a major turning point in the recognition of the discrimination indigenous women face and allowed for their double, and often triple, disadvantage to finally be accounted for.

Access to education for indigenous women is problematic, and due to cultural norms, indigenous families often prefer that their daughters remain at home to help with domestic chores and childcare in preparation for early marriage rather than attending school.

According to CEPAL, the indigenous girls that do make it into the schooling system do not tend to stay or the quality of education they receive is not enough to provide them with the aptitudes they need to become financially independent.  The statistics clearly demonstrate these worrying educational trends; in Guatemala for instance, 71% of indigenous boys are enrolled in school whilst the same applies to only 54% of girls.

And in Ecuador, 48% of indigenous women are illiterate compared with only 32% of indigenous men. If illiteracy and school drop-out rates are much higher for indigenous women, it is only natural this should detrimentally affect their ability to engage with the political sphere.

Indigenous women are also more likely to experience gender based violence than non-indigenous women, due to community customs that normalise the abuse of women especially by their partners and their families.

gender violence
By Denis Bocquet – CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

This violence can manifest itself in the form of ‘violence in the name of tradition’ which includes forced marriage and the punishment of honour crimes, or domestic violence within the home. The bodies they inhabit become even more vulnerable when massive development projects and armed conflicts occupy their territory, causing displacements that make them susceptible to sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Many indigenous female activists live in fear of suffering the same fate as Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres. Cáceres was murdered in March 2016 in her own home after leading protests against the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam project on Lenca inhabited territory, and has since become an eternal symbol of the dangers of marginalised activism in Latin America.

Colombian indigenous leader Jakeline Romero, defender of indigenous human rights, recently gave an interview where she described the constant death threats she is subject to as a product of her activism against extraction companies in her territory.

She described having to abandon a UN conference in 2014 because her daughter received a threat over the phone, as well as receiving threats of rape or other types of sexual violence. Most of these of course, related to her condition as a woman.

Although the discourse of the indigenous woman as a perpetual victim only contributes to the already extensive list of reductive stereotypes they must fight against, it would be wrong to ignore the massive challenges they must face that have prevented and continue to prevent them from achieving a fair and equal political representation.

A token gesture or a lasting change?

Marichuy Patricio may have made history upon announcing her intentions to run in the 2018 presidential elections but the disheartening reality is that she only gained 275,000 the 866,593 signatures required that would have allowed her to compete in the end.

There is little doubt that the technological gap played a role as the mobile application used to collect signatures acted as a barrier to indigenous communities without mobile phones or the internet that would have otherwise supported her, however it is undeniable that institutionalised racism and sexism are also determining factors that contributed to her lack of success.

Which brings us back to the reality for many indigenous women today; they may have found their voice within indigenous movements, but gaining equal representation within such movements and breaking into the political mainstream remain somewhat of a near impossible feat.

Patricio’s nomination is a positive development for Mexico but is not enough.

The fight must continue so that female indigenous leaders are no longer mere token gestures, but are as numerous as the diverse needs of those they must represent.

This report prepared by BEVERLY GOLDBERG for OpenDemocracy

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