“We need to strengthen women’s self esteem and make them feel valued for their identity and culture”

Date: 05 Aug 2011

9 August, International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

Myrna Cunningham, President of the United Nation's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Myrna Cunningham at the launch of the UN's first-ever 'State of the World's Indigenous Peoples' report (of which Ms. Cunningham is also an author). (Photo: UN/Paulo Filgueiras)

Myrna Cunningham's biography can be marked by the word “pioneer. She was the first doctor of the Miskito ethnic group in Nicaragua and the first woman governor of the autonomous region. She was also the first indigenous woman to receive an Honorary Doctorate from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

On 9 August, the UN marks the International Day of Indigenous Peoples with the theme “Indigenous designs: Celebrating stories and cultures, crafting our own future. Indigenous people represent 370 million men and women, 5 percent of the world's population. But when it comes to the proportion of indigenous peoples living in poverty, that number increases to 15 percent. Further, about one third of the 900 million living in extreme poverty come from rural areas. Myrna Cunningham talks about the challenges and needs of indigenous women.

What are some of the unique challenges indigenous women face that distinguishes them from the rest in Latin America?

In their struggle for rights, indigenous women face two challenges: Struggling for their rights as women and struggling for their rights as indigenous peoples. An indigenous woman has the right to safe childbirth, but the health system must adapt to this particular community. Public policies do not consider this double right. Some governments are making an effort to integrate the cultural perspective, but there is much to do.

The relationship between poverty and indigenous peoples is a sad phenomenon, and among the most affected are women. What do you think are the roots of this?

Indigenous communities have a different concept of wealth than non-indigenous peoples. They do not understand wealth as the accumulation of money, but see wealth as a harmonious relationship with nature and having the resources to survive. That said, poverty exists in some places. This economic model has driven people away from their territory and the economic crisis has aggravated the situation and other threats they face. There are two big factors impacting the lives of indigenous women. Firstly, their changing access to land and, with it, their power. Women who provide food for their communities and families are losing their right to land and have to migrate. Secondly, the increase of economic violence is affecting their spiritual life. For example, climate change has dried up rivers, the traditional place where women gathered to resolve conflicts. Now they have lost that cultural playground.

What solutions do you propose to economically empower indigenous women?

We need to address the structural problems that hamper the development of indigenous women. Out of these issues, one of the most prominent is land rights and legal access to their land. So, it is important to allocate resources and fund projects promoted and implemented by women. We must also deepen their skills through education.

How do you think they can get greater representation in politics?

Through two spaces: the traditional government itself by getting more women in the councils of elders and community of judges, and in the areas of state organization. We need to build the self-esteem of these women and make them feel valued for their identity, knowledge and culture.

Education is a means to achieve all of that. As the Itinerant Indigenous Chair of the Intercultural Indigenous University, what programmes are under way for indigenous peoples?

In collaboration with UN Women, the university offers an undergraduate degree in strengthening the leadership of indigenous women. Through this, we have designed a comprehensive training curriculum for women that includes spirituality, relations of the indigenous peoples with the government, women's rights, etcetera. In all courses we have tried to incorporate a gender perspective.

UN Women currently promotes development programmes and projects focused on indigenous women worldwide. Here are some of them.