Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence

Executive Director’s blog series: No impunity for violence against indigenous women

A 16-part blog series by UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

Date: Monday, November 27, 2017

“The Sepur Zarco Grandmothers” wait for a verdict during the trial of  former military officers for crimes against humanity on counts of rape, murder and slavery in Guatemala’s High-Risk Court. Photo: Cristina Chinquin
The Sepur Zarco Grandmothers” wait for a verdict during the trial of former military officers for crimes against humanity on counts of rape, murder and slavery in Guatemala’s High-Risk Court. Photo: Cristina Chinquin

We need to treasure our indigenous women and girls. They have unique knowledge and skills, sophisticated ecological knowledge and adaptive responses to climate variability, including environmental practices that lower carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. As custodians of their ancestral lands and the environment upon which they depend, they are a rich source of exactly the resources that our fragile planet needs. Yet not only are indigenous peoples not able to enjoy all their rights, they are especially vulnerable to violence.

It is 10 years since the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which drew special attention to the needs and rights of indigenous women. Yet, still this year, at UN Women’s Commission on the Status of Women, where the issue of empowering indigenous women was the central focus, those women told us that the most important challenges they faced included violence, economic empowerment, political participation and climate change.

Demecia Yat de Xol. Photo: Cristina Chinquin
Demecia Yat de Xol was just 28 years old when she was forced into sexual slavery in the small village of Sepur Zarco by the Guatemalan military. On 26 February 2016, at age 61, Doña Demecia sat in Guatemala’s High-Risk Court, waiting for a verdict.
 Photo: Mujeres Transformando el Mundo/Rocizela Pérez

Indigenous women cannot realize their rights nor fully participate in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development while they are subjected to inequality and violence. From sexual violence and domestic violence to labour exploitation and trafficking during times of conflict, too many indigenous women are at risk. Together, governments, UN agencies and most importantly indigenous women themselves, are taking steps to address exploitation and harassment by non-indigenous people, including ending practices that prevent indigenous women from controlling their fertility, education and lives.

Impunity for violence against indigenous women must end. Guatemala is setting an example. Thirty-four years after the rape and slavery of the indigenous Q’echi’ women of Sepur Zarco, a court has convicted former military officers of crimes against humanity. This was the first time a national court anywhere in the world had ruled on charges of sexual slavery during an armed conflict. This is a step in the right direction for indigenous women’s access to justice. Survivors and their communities are now receiving reparations. Yet at nearly four decades on, this justice is long overdue.