CSW61: Indigenous Women at the Forefront

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The first session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) took place in 1947, soon after the founding of the UN, with its first mission focused on standards and international conventions to bring awareness on women’s issues worldwide and to change discriminatory legislation. 70 years later, the sixty-first session of the CSW (or CSW61) took place the 13-24 March at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, gathering representatives of UN Member States, civil society and other UN entities to discuss the most pressing issues that women face in the world today. Over the past seventy years the Commission has achieved much, including drafting the first international law that recognizes and protects the political rights of women and establishing conventions on requiring equal pay for equal work and ending discrimination. The CSW has evolved, now contributing to tracking the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to fulfill gender equality and the empowerment of women.

This year’s theme at the CSW61 includes women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work; challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDGs for women and girls; and the empowerment of indigenous women.

The SDGs will not be achieved if the most marginalized populations of society continue to be left out of the discussion. For this reason, this year’s theme of empowering indigenous women is one that resonates with the RIO+ Centre and that we see as invaluable in leaving no one behind. Indigenous women are among the most marginalized groups in the world, suffering not only from additional gender-based disadvantages and discrimination, but also facing discrimination on the basis of race, culture and class. They are often the most affected by poverty and hunger, disease, illiteracy as well as environmental degradation.

Yet, many indigenous women are not letting the world leave them behind. One such woman is Sonia Guajajara. A part of the Guajajara people of the state of Maranhão in the Brazilian Amazon, Sonia is the executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil or APIB), where she works to achieve indigenous rights in Brazil, including the right to legal recognition of land. A leader in Brazil’s indigenous movement, Sonia has represented Brazilian indigenous peoples in various international events including the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris in 2015, and was the Cultural Merit Order (Ordem do Mérito Cultural) from the Ministry of Culture in that same year.

In an interview with Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) in 2016, Sonia highlighted the need to empower indigenous women and spoke of the challenges she faces in being an indigenous woman struggling for her people’s rights.

ISA – Can you give examples of different realities and problems you face- health, education, participation in indigenous organizations, sexism? 
Sonia Guajajara – It’s a daily challenge to occupy the spaces of discussion, as there is this issue of culture, of sexism. Although we have many active and empowered leaders, women still make up a small part of those that are able to get outside of the space of the village. We need to try to unite, occupy, and make the women’s voice be heard, not just in our own lands, but outside the village as well. We as women must empower themselves to make this happen.

ISA- What is the main challenge for APIB in mobilizing indigenous women and men in Brazil?

SG – I think that it’s upholding the confidence and credibility of indigenous peoples. It is very difficult to be able achieve this credibility being a woman. Today, despite having critiques and many differences that face us, I’m confident and motivated. A lot of people tell me “We are with you, you can count on us.”

ISA – Outside the struggle: What are the challenges of being a woman of a different [minority] culture in a “macho” society that is not indigenous?

SG – We must acknowledge two challenges. The first is conquering the space and then maintaining this credibility and confidence of our people, and also [the second is] raising awareness in society. We face discrimination twice: for being indigenous and for being a woman.

ISA – What is the situation of women in your tribe, the Guajajara, which live in Maranhão?
 – Guajajara are strong, fierce, fighting women. There are women which live in anonymity, but are autonomous, independent women, and it is them that define the fights and the battles.

*Interview from the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), https://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/blog/blog-do-monitoramento/sonia-guajajara-a-gente-enfrenta-o-preconceito-duas-vezes-por-ser-indigena-e-por-ser-mulher