EMPOWERING INDIGENOUS WOMEN TO SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES AND FOR THEIR COMMUNITIES

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Indigenous peoples in Asia are facing continuing violations of their rights because of what we refer to as development aggression – the enforced implementation of corporate and state projects without the free, prior and informed consent of the affected indigenous peoples.

Mining, dam projects, plantations, oil extraction, establishment of parks, tourism facilities, and other projects to boost national income and image have been done at the expense of indigenous peoples. In many cases, the denial of the identity and rights of indigenous peoples are at the heart of the human rights violations that indigenous peoples face. This situation is exacerbated by state neglect which puts indigenous peoples mostly at the bottom of the development ladder. The combined situation of development aggression and state neglect, topped by social prejudice, make the full enjoyment of all human rights by indigenous people far from being attained. Within their societies, indigenous women, in turn, face an added layer of discrimination because of their gender. Most indigenous societies in Asia are dominated by patriarchal systems, and generally they are customary leadership and decision-making is favoured for men. With economic changes, sometimes these systems are reinforced, or whatever prestigious roles women have, they lose them. For instance, in Kui society in Cambodia, the traditional spiritual belief requires the priestess to be the custodian of the belief and thus has a very prestigious role. This role is intricately linked to natural resources because the spiritual belief is rooted in the spirit forest. With the destruction of these kinds of forests, the role of the priestess is slowly eroded.
When communities suffer from development aggression, women are affected in various ways. They are left to take care of families if the men are forced to leave the community to earn income, or because they are targeted by authorities or companies, or when they take up arms. In cases like this, they are left to continue the struggle within their communities too. Often, the indigenous women are empowered when they are involved in their people’s struggle but they also face the inadequacy arising from their gendered upbringing. For instance, they may not have the literacy to deal with legal issues, to document their cases, to negotiate with authorities, among other limitations. It is for this reason that the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, in the Project  “Strengthening the Network of Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Asia” endeavours to aim for maximum participation of indigenous women in the capacity-building component of the Project. This Project is funded by the European Instrument on Democracy and Human Rights of the European Union (EIDHR) for the period September 2011 – August 2014.  Gender balance in capacity-building activities is observed in regional activities as part of the enforcement of AIPPs Gender Policy. This policy is strongly encouraged among project partners as a start in increasing the participation of women in capacity-building activities.
In this EIDHR-funded Project, trainings on documentation of human rights violations and advocacy are conducted at several levels – regional, national/sub-nation and community. At the end of its 2nd year of implementation, a total of 24 participants including 11 women (46%) participated in the first regional training of trainors. Forty-four percent of 322 participants were women participants in 10 national/sub-national trainings conducted in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia  Northeast India, Nepal, and the Philippines. Out of 3,723 participants in 77 community seminars conducted in eight countries, 40% . The low turnout in the community seminars reflects the challenges that women face in the community where their participation to community events are often constrained by their gendered roles.
Thailand showed close to achieving gender parity in women’s attendance in community seminars with a 49% women participation in 2013 seminars. Cambodia and the Philippines showed good efforts at 46%, with Nepal at 41%.  Bangladesh comes at 39% for the 1st year and increased to 47% in the 2nd due to an all-women event. Northeast India at 32%  during the 1st year and creeping up a bit to 35% in the 2nd year despite the 2 events which was attended by almost all-women organised by an indigenous women’s organization. Much still has to be done in Malaysia for the 2nd year due to only a 19% women’s participation in its 1st year. Implementation. Indonesia is catching up with a 31% performance in the 2nd year from a low 22%  in the 1st year.  It should be noted that the situation is dynamic and substantial improvements may be seen in the next period as the project partners become more engaged in pushing for gender balance in their capacity-building activities and indigenous women become more empowered to claim their spaces.
One of the women who gained confidence, skills and knowledge  from the trainings in this project is Ms. TIP Yav, a 33-year old Kui from  Preah Net Preah District of Banteay Meanchey Province in Cambodia. She finished Grade 5 and had limited literacy skills in Khmer and no knowledge of her right evens under Cambodian national law. She also had poor communication skills. Despite her limitations and the risks of speaking out and taking action, she led her community to organize some self-help groups with funds contributed from the villagers members themselves and from the Toeuk Dey Sovannaphom Organization.
On top of the community organizing and other skills she obtained prior to the project, she also attended the national human rights documentation and advocacy training which gave her additional knowledge and skills that enabled her to coordinate and lead her community to engage in natural resources conservation, undertake land and forest protection against illegal businesses and powerful people, and advocate with local authorities on resolving her community’s land issues. She has been elected as a  community representative of her village.  
She is now working to raise the level of human rights awareness of her community through re-echo sessions of trainings attended, community consultation meetings, community seminars on laws that are relevant to Cambodia’s indigenous peoples. She is able to discuss  the 2001 Land Law, the 2002 Forestry Law, the concept of advocacy and human rights, and other national laws and policies. She also participates in public education by being a resource person in radio programs that discuss indigenous peoples. She has become bolder in mobilizing her community and in July 2012 she mobilized her community in making a complaint to the Chrorb Thmey Commune Office and Preah Net District Office  to address the issue of land grabbing and  illegal logging. As a result, the targeted person has stopped his intentions and has written a letter to the villagers  stating that he will desist from violating their land and forest rights. Besides that, Yav has joined her community in establishing micro-economic initiatives like a small savings group, toilet construction group, fishpond group, chicken-raising group, among others . She says that now, her community is becoming stronger by being organized and able to fully contribute to act on issues that impact on the community, especially the land issues.
Apart from local level work,  Ms Tip Yav has had the opportunity to attend advocacy activities at the  national and international levels like many NGO activities in Phnom Penh and the provinces in Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues where she raised the issues of forest and land grabbing in her community.