From where I stand: “Expanding indigenous women’s rights strengthens the collective rights”

The concept of collective rights is central to indigenous cultures. But the status of indigenous women within and outside their communities remain precarious when they are unable to claim any rights of their own. Janneth Lozano Bustos works with indigenous communities in Colombia to economically empower women so that they can enjoy autonomy over their lives and resources.


Janneth Lozano Bustos. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Janneth Lozano Bustos. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown


I was nine years old when my father was part of a very famous trial in Colombia, which outlawed the barbaric practice of “guajiviadas”—hunting of indigenous peoples as a form of “sport”—by the settlers. The defense argued that the settlers didn’t know that indigenous peoples had souls and thought of them as animals.

When I started working with indigenous women, almost thirty years ago, I began to understand that their reality was very precarious, not only because of the poverty they endured, but the conditions they had at work, the violence they suffered within their relations and at work.

In northern Cauca region, over 400 Kilometres from the capital city of Bogota, indigenous families often send out their young girls to join domestic work in nearby cities. But their work is poorly remunerated; they have long hours as live-in help and receive no social security.

Back in the days, in the nearby cities like Popayan, mothers of the aristocratic families thought that it was better for their boys to be initiated in sex with indigenous girls. Although the practice has been abolished, I still hear of men in their forties who joke about having slept with their domestic workers when they were young, with the complicity of their mothers.

When I work with indigenous women and girls, I explain to them that if they need to work as domestic workers in the cities, they have rights that they can claim. But even as more indigenous women and girls are becoming aware and claiming their rights, their employers don’t want to recognize their rights to minimum wage, rest and social security.

When these women return to their communities, they work as farmers, but they never see a dime from selling their products. The sale is finalized by the men and they keep the money. If [the women] are raising the hen and selling it, they should have the right to lead the negotiation and receive the money!

Indigenous men fear that feminism breaks with the idea of collective rights. We are trying to explain that expanding indigenous women’s rights strengthens the collective rights of the community.”

SDG 5: Gender equality
SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Janneth Lozano Bustos, AGE, is the Director of the Community Support Corporation (Codacop), and the former coordinator of the Network of Popular Education among Women from Latin American and the Caribbean (REPEM). She started working with indigenous women at a time when there was hardly any concept of indigenous women holding and claiming individual rights. Today, she works with indigenous women in the Cauca region to ensure that they have autonomy over their own resources. Ms. Bustos recently participated at a UN Women event, “Voices on Gender Equality from CSW: Civil Society meets the Press”, as part of the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Her work contributes towards Sustainable Development Goal 8, which promotes sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth for all, and SDG 5, on gender equality and empowerment of all women, including women’s equal rights over resources.

Read more stories in the “From where I stand...” editorial series.