09.08.2022 |

Indigenous women are guardians of traditional knowledge, UN experts

Quechua woman in Peru (Photo: A. Beck)

Indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous peoples’ communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge related to food and agriculture as well as in the protection of biodiversity and natural resources. This was one of the messages a group of UN experts conveyed on August 9 on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The experts, among them Mr. Francisco Cali Tzay, who is Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, urged States to take affirmative action to guarantee indigenous peoples’ full public and political participation. This year’s theme of the day was “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge”. Therefore, the experts put a great emphasis on the crucial role that indigenous women play in their communities as breadwinners, caretakers, knowledge keepers, leaders and human rights defenders. “Indigenous women are active change agents in society and champions of sustainability. Indigenous women are custodians of a collective accumulation of scientific knowledge and technical skills related to food and agriculture, health and medicine, natural resource management, climate change, language, arts, crafts and spiritual practices. This scientific knowledge has a key role to play in safeguarding ecosystems and ensuring environmental justice and equity,” they wrote in a joint statement, adding that indigenous women’s in-depth understanding of botany and animal species is also a powerful tool to mitigate against the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The experts pointed to the fact that the development, application, preservation and transmission of indigenous women’s knowledge is inextricably linked to the way they use their territory, lands and resources. However, indigenous women often suffer from intersecting levels of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. This multiple forms of discrimination, as well as violence against women, create barriers to their development and use of their scientific knowledge. Indigenous women’s rights to self-determination, self-governance and control of resources and ancestral lands have been violated over centuries. Because of their relationship with the land and natural environment, women are disproportionally affected by the loss of lands, territories and resources due to climate change, conflicts, development and the creation of protected areas. Extractive industries on their lands are increasingly depriving them of their access to and ownership of lands. When the natural resources they steward are exploited without their free, prior and informed consent, which happens quite frequently, the knowledge of indigenous women is devalued and their ability to maintain and transmit their scientific and technical knowledge is threatened.

“Historically, indigenous women have been leaders in their communities. The preservation of indigenous peoples’ communities, values and ways of life depend on indigenous women and girls regaining their roles as leaders within their communities,” the statement reads. In order to enable women to do so, States should ensure effective legal protection of indigenous women’s rights to lands, territory and resources and promote the meaningful participation of indigenous women in the management and regulation of their lands and resources. According to the experts, this must include the participation of women in consultation processes on administrative and legislative issues as well projects that may impact indigenous lands, territory and resources, with the aim of obtaining their free, prior and informed consent. “States should take affirmative measures to guarantee equal and full public and political participation of indigenous women, including by establishing and strengthening institutions for indigenous women in leadership roles,” the experts conclude. (ab)

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