The Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus focused on the issues of health, education, and culture during a preparatory meeting prior to the 12th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), which is taking place in New York City May 20-31.
The Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus (GIWC) planning meeting on May 17 attracted an unexpectedly high number of women – more than 200 – who flocked to the Church Center of the U.N. for the all day session. “We were worried about having enough food but it was like the loaves and the fishes, we even had food left over,” joked Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga Nation), the president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance and former North American Regional Representative to the UNPFII. (Related story: Tonya Gonnella Frichner Among Honory Degree Recipients at Colby College)
The UNPFII is an advisory body to the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The UNPFII is mandated, among other things, to provide expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the ECOSOC. The Permanent Forum’s first two-week annual meeting was held in May 2002 in New York. It is one of three U.N. bodies that is mandated to deal specifically with Indigenous Peoples' issues. The others are the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
While Indigenous women and girls have been active participants in organizing and leadership roles at the U.N. for years, the GIWC took shape as a functioning organization within the Permanent Forum framework in 2004. The group comes together each year before the Permanent Forum opens to prepare its positions and statements for the two-week meeting. (Related story: Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus Probes Doctrine of Discovery’s Impact on Women)
The GIWC had a full agenda this year as well as a full house of attendees. The first item after the welcoming and opening ceremonies was the appointment of chairs and rapporteurs for the 12th session of the UNPFII. The co-chairs are Aviaaja Egede Lynge, Greenland; Eleanor Dictaan-Bang-Ta, Philippines; Joyce Naini, Africa; Mayra Gomez, Aymara, Bolivia; Muriel Borst Tarrant, Kuna-Rapahanock, North America; Otilia Lux de Cotí, Maya Quiche, Guatemala; and Sandra Creamer, Australia. Rapporteurs are Erin Konsmo, Krysta Williams, Native Youth Sexual Health Network; Eve Reyes-Aguirre, Izkaloteka, Mexica, Aztec, Tonatierra Nahuacalli - Embassy of Indigenous Peoples; Guadalupe Martínez Pérez, Alianza de Mujeres Indígenas de Centroamérica y México; LobiRedHawk, Meherrin-Sapony (Creek-Cherokee), Longhouse Treaty Nations.
Within just a few days of the meeting, the GIWC had prepared statements that will be presented to the Permanent Forum on health, education and culture – three areas which will be reviewed at this year’s session in terms of recommendation made in previous years by the UNFPII.
The group’s statement on health, for example, was prepared by Aviaja Egede Lynge and begins with an affirmation of “the intercultural approach to health for all life forms on Mother Earth. In the context of this Forum, Health must encompass more than a biological concept or physical measures; it must also include our spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, traditional and spiritual livelihoods as Indigenous Peoples.”
The statement includes a number of recommendations adopted at the GIWC’s planning session, among them is a call on states to ensure that the “free, prior and informed consent” requirement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is observed before allowing any extractive activities on indigenous lands and territories. It urges U.N. organizations and states to pay special attention to the specific needs of elderly indigenous women and recommends research be conducted on how migration impact the health of Indigenous Peoples. It notes that Indigenous Peoples experience tuberculosis rates that are 20 to 30 times higher than non-Indigenous Peoples and asks for an update from the expert group studying the disease globally.
The caucus also puts forward recommendation on “the grave impacts of environmental toxics on women’s reproductive and intergenerational health around the world” and recommends that the roles of “traditional midwives be re-evaluated and expanded so that they may assist indigenous women during their reproductive health processes and act as cultural brokers between health systems and indigenous communities’ values and world views. Examples of culturally safe care would be offering health services in indigenous languages, respecting traditional knowledge and indigenous medicines. The caucus statement talks of water as a human right that is intricately tied to “health and spiritual well-being” and supports “a world expert study on the influence of transnational corporations on states’ decisions and policies regarding Indigenous Peoples’ right to access to and the protection of water from exploitation, commodification or diversion.”
Reflecting the democratic and inclusive protocols the GIWC uses, an e-mail request for comment that was sent to Rapporteur Eve Reyes-Aguirre, was forwarded to the appointed co-chairs for a response. Asked why so many women turned up this year for the preparatory meeting, the co-chairs wrote, “Women realize more and more, the importance of voicing important issues of their concern and responsibilities. Through their active participation they deflect historical marginalization.’
Asked what the GIWC hopes to achieve during this year’s Permanent Forum session, the co-chairs sent the following statement:
“At every session women come together to listen to one another and to understand our shared experiences in the struggle to maintain and flourish in our identities, languages, cultures intrinsically linked to our land and territories. Often we learn of the violence and desperate and dangerous circumstances of other Indigenous Peoples. We empathize and in solidarity resolve to unite in our common struggles.
“As the twelfth session of the Permanent Forum is a review year, we will be following up and advocating for action on the implementation of UNPFII's past recommendations on issues of paramount importance such: Health, Education, and Culture. Human rights and the Implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and lastly, time is also being allotted for a ‘Discussion on the High Level Plenary Meeting to be called World Conference on Indigenous Peoples’ [a meeting of the General Assembly in September 2014 at the U.N. in New York].
“The post-2015 agenda will reflect new development challenges for which the respect of the principle of free, prior and informed consent for the development and use of indigenous lands is crucial. Indigenous women can play a role in addressing the economic, cultural and spiritual development as defined by Indigenous Peoples for the sustainability of life and future generations of all life forms on Mother Earth.”