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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL DISCUSSES CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF VIOLENCE AGAINST INDIGENOUS WOMEN AND GIRLS

20 September 2016

The Human Rights Council this morning held its half-day annual discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples, focused on the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls, including those with disabilities.  The aim of the panel discussion was to assess the development of legal and policy responses to violence against indigenous women, based on article 22 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and identify good practices and challenges in addressing structural forms of violence against indigenous women.

Opening the panel discussion, Adam Abdelmoula, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanisms Division, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that widespread violence against indigenous women was underlined and heightened by their unequal position in society, and compounded by multiple forms of discrimination.  Indigenous women and girls who had suffered violence faced too many barriers in accessing justice, including sheer discrimination or mistrust in the judicial system.  There was a need to regard indigenous women as equal and valuable partners; acknowledge and provide remedy for historical abuses of indigenous communities to end their vulnerability; improve responses and ensure justice for indigenous victims; develop preventative measures such as education campaigns against violence; and address trauma and break the cycle of violence.

Albert Kwokwo Barume, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and panel moderator, thanked the Human Rights Council for having organized a panel discussion on such an important issue, and acknowledged the accessibility of the discussion to indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities.

Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sami Parliament of Norway, said that violence against women in the Sámi communities took place just as it did in other communities, but for a long time that fact had been hidden from the public due to a lack of statistics on Sámi issues.  The loss of languages, culture, resources and territories that often accompanied colonization and assimilation policies put great pressure on indigenous peoples’ own mechanisms for resolving conflicts, and made indigenous women and children vulnerable.

Olga Montúfar Contreras Director of the Fundación Paso a Paso from Mexico, said that women and girls with disabilities suffered different forms of discrimination and that their protection needed to be tailored.  Indigenous women and girls who did not know their rights had low expectations, and did not recognize verbal violence, rejection and coercion as violence against them.  If women were not empowered about their rights, they could not defend them. 

Hannah McGlade, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Senior Indigenous Fellow and Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, said that in Australia, the major issue was the lack of responsiveness of the criminal justice system to violence against Aboriginal women, who were predominantly seen as offenders rather than victims.  Australia must ensure equality before the law for indigenous women, further develop strategy and policy to increase their access to justice, and ensure their full participation in the administration of justice.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said that States should develop a holistic approach to violence against women which recognized the multiple interconnections between different forms of violence against women, its causes and consequences, and to address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.  States should also develop mechanisms that allowed indigenous women and girls to pursue other means of recourse against violence if they were unable to obtain support and access to justice within indigenous communities.

Speakers in the discussion recognized that gender-based violence was a global challenge, noting that special attention should be given to women and girls with disabilities, as well as lesbian, bisexual and transgender indigenous women, who might be in a particularly vulnerable situation.  They agreed that much remained to be done to remove obstacles that prevented indigenous women and girls from gaining access to justice, and asked about the main barriers for access to justice for indigenous women and girls, how the international community could move beyond mere policy intentions in addressing those barriers, and how the Council could play a greater role in addressing access to justice system protections. 

Taking the floor were the European Union, Canada on behalf of a group of countries, South Africa on behalf of the African Group, Dominican Republic on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Norway on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, Greece, Georgia, Ecuador, Guatemala, International Development Law Organization, China, United States, Paraguay, United Kingdom, Mexico, Colombia, Senegal, France, United Nations Population Fund, Australia, Fiji, Albania, Council of Europe, Namibia, Algeria, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nigeria, Tunisia, Iran, Spain, Egypt, Honduras, Maldives and the Republic of the Congo.

Also speaking were Australian Human Rights Commission in a video-statement, Defence for Children International, Action Canada for Population and Development on behalf of Sexual Rights Initiative, Indian Law Resource Centre, Graduate Women International, American for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, FIAN International and Conselho Indigenista Missionàrio.

The Human Rights Council is holding a full day of meetings today.  Next on the Council’s agenda is a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, followed by an interactive discussion with the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council.

Opening Statement

ADAM ABDELMOULA, Director of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Mechanism Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivering the opening statement on behalf of Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the panel discussion today was based on the premise that violence against indigenous women took place in both public and private spheres.  It would address structural, systemic, and public forms of violence experienced by indigenous women and girls in contemporary society, with a focus on access to justice and the ways in which their right to justice was impeded.  Also, the panel would examine the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women with disabilities, who suffered from multiple forms of discrimination.  Widespread violence against indigenous women was underlined and heightened by their unequal position in society, and compounded by multiple forms of discrimination.  There was ample evidence that indigenous women and girls were at disproportionate risk of physical, emotional and sexual violence, of being married as children, of being trafficked, of undergoing forced sterilization, or of being exchanged for a bride price in some parts of the world.  Violence against indigenous women could not be separated from broader violations of indigenous peoples’ rights, including to their lands and resources.  Large-scale development projects and extractive industries imposed on indigenous peoples’ lands and territories could lead to violence and displacement, which in itself was another cause of violence.

This year’s landmark case in the Sepur Zarco case in Guatemala showed that access to justice for the gravest violations of women’s rights could be achieved: for the first time in the history of Guatemala, sexual violence committed during the military conflict in the 1980s had been successfully prosecuted, leading to the conviction of two former members of the military to 360 years in jail for the murder, rape and sexual enslavement of indigenous women.  Still, indigenous women who had suffered violence faced too many barriers for accessing justice, because they might not be aware of their rights and the services and protections available to them, because these services and protections simply did not exist, because of sheer discrimination, or because of lack of trust in the domestic criminal system.  It was worrying that indigenous women were over-represented in the criminal system as offenders in many countries for which data was available, including in New Zealand, Canada and Australia.  While some two per cent of the Australian female population identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, indigenous women made up one third of the female prison population.  In order to overcome this situation, there was a need to regard indigenous women as equal and valuable partners; acknowledge and provide remedy for historical abuses of indigenous communities to end their vulnerability; improve responses and ensure justice for indigenous victims; develop preventative measures such as education campaigns against violence; and address trauma and break the cycle of violence.  Everyone had a role to play in addressing violence against indigenous women, and non-governmental organizations and national human rights institutions could ensure that violations were denounced and dealt with, through international mechanisms if necessary.

Statements by the Moderator and the Panellists

ALBERT KWOKWO BARUME, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Panel Moderator, thanked the Human Rights Council for having organized a panel discussion on such an important issue.  He acknowledged the accessibility of the discussion to indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities.  He thanked the representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for having set the scene with an informative opening statement.  Mr. Barume then proceeded to introduce the panellists. 

AILI KESKITALO, President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, said that international studies and reports indicated a higher prevalence of violence among indigenous peoples than among the general population.  Indigenous women in particular experienced violence and other human rights violations.  In large parts of the world indigenous peoples belonged to the most marginalized groups financially, socially, culturally, in terms of civil society, politically, linguistically, intellectually and in humanitarian and other ways.  Violence against women in the Sámi communities took place just as it did in other communities.  For a long time that fact had been hidden from the public due to a lack of statistics on Sámi issues.  Some 48 per cent of Sámi women had experienced some kind of violence during their life, as opposed to 29 per cent of the members of the general public.  The issue of violence against indigenous women could not be resolved in isolation.  The reasons for that violence could be found in gender imbalance, and power and lack of power within indigenous peoples, and between indigenous peoples and majority communities.  The loss of languages, culture, resources and territories that often accompanied colonization and assimilation policies put great pressure on indigenous peoples’ own mechanisms for resolving conflicts, and made indigenous women and children vulnerable.  

What the Member States should do to heal indigenous communities and bridge the gap was to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  By doing that they would empower indigenous peoples to find long-term solutions that might end violence against indigenous women, children and persons with disabilities.  That was not a quick fix, but it would restore indigenous peoples’ faith in the relationship between them and the States they lived in.  It would make indigenous peoples partners with the States they lived in and stewards of their own future.  States should also provide immediate appropriate assistance to indigenous women, children and persons with disabilities in the form of culturally sensitive protection, health care and legal assistance in their own languages to the victims of different kinds of violence against indigenous women.  As for the Human Rights Council, it should ensure that the issue remained high and visible on its agenda. 

OLGA MONTÚFAR CONTRERAS, Director of Fundación Paso a Paso in Mexico, said that human rights covenants needed to be read in a systematic way regarding women and girls with disabilities.  The women or girls with disabilities suffered from a number of different discriminations and protection needed to be tailored.  Many indigenous women and girls with disabilities had been taught to be grateful for favours of being given some attention.  When they did not know what their rights were, they could not recognize what violence was.  A survey had been carried out on women with disabilities, they were asked what their expectations were.  Their expectations were low.  Those women were given training on their human rights, chiefly on direct implementation, such as them being entitled to receiving equal treatment with their peers without disabilities.  After the training they received, another study was carried out on how satisfied they were with their lives.  The conclusion was that satisfaction was subjective.  Verbal violence, rejection and coercion were not considered by them as violence against them.  If women were not empowered about their rights, they could not defend themselves.  Intersectional indicators needed to be created. 

HANNAH McGLADE, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Senior Indigenous Fellow and Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, Australia, said that Aboriginal women and girls of Australia faced unacceptably high levels of violence; Aboriginal mothers were 17.5 times more likely to die from homicide then a non-Aboriginal mother, and they were also at increased risk of suicide related to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse.  Australia had made a commitment to combat violence against women, including indigenous women, through a National Plan of Action which included provisions aimed at strengthening indigenous communities, strategies to foster the leadership of indigenous women in the community and wider society, building community capacity, and improving access to support services.  A major issue faced by Aboriginal women was the lack of responsiveness by the justice system; Aboriginal women were least well served by the legal system and law provided them with little or no protection.  Police did not take seriously the violence experienced by Aboriginal women and did not respond with urgency, while the criminal justice system predominantly interacted with Aboriginal women as offenders rather than victims.  Australia must ensure equality before the law for indigenous women and further develop strategy and policy to increase their access to justice; ensure the full participation of indigenous women in the administration of justice; and develop human rights programmes aimed at law enforcement officials and the judiciary.

VICTORIA TAULI-CORPUZ, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said that indigenous women experienced a broad, multifaceted and complex spectrum of mutually reinforcing human rights abuses.  That spectrum was influenced by multiple and intersecting forms of vulnerability, including patriarchal power structures; multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization based on gender, class, ethnic origin and socioeconomic circumstances; and historical and current violations of the right to self-determination and control of resources.  All the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples applied equally to indigenous women and indigenous men.  Article 22 of the Declaration specifically provided that States would take measures, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, to ensure that indigenous women and children enjoyed full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.  Despite progress made, systematic attention to the specific vulnerability of indigenous women had remained limited in relation to the scale of abuses against them. 

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz recommended that Member States develop a holistic approach to violence against women based on the indivisibility and universality of all human rights, which recognized the multiple interconnections between different forms of violence against women, its causes and consequences, and to address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.  In the context of affording indigenous people legal jurisdiction that was compatible with their right to self-determination, States should develop mechanisms that allowed indigenous women and girls to pursue other means of recourse against violence if they were unable to obtain support and access to justice within indigenous communities.  States should balance respect for the right to self-determination of indigenous communities with their responsibility to protect indigenous women and girls in their capacity as national citizens and rights bearers.  States should also build the capacity of female indigenous leaders to advocate for the rights of women and girls to freedom from violence within indigenous communities.

Discussion

European Union asked the panel what the main barriers were for access to justice for indigenous women and girls, and how the international community could move beyond mere policy intentions in addressing those barriers.  Canada, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, asked how the Council could play a greater role in addressing access to justice system protections.  South Africa, speaking on behalf of the African Group, reiterated its strong commitment to its zero tolerance to all forms of violence against women and girls.  Dominican Republic, speaking on behalf of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said that much remained to be done to remove obstacles that prevented indigenous women and girls from gaining access to justice.  Norway, speaking  on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, said that gender-based violence was a global challenge, noting that special attention should be given to women and girls with disabilities, as well as lesbian, bisexual and transgender indigenous women, who might be in a particularly vulnerable situation.  Greece said that indigenous women faced multidimensional challenges, which often caused marginalization.  

Georgia agreed that a thorough assessment of the root causes of violence against indigenous women and girls was needed and stressed that gender equality and empowering of all women and girls was the necessary precondition of sustainable development.  Ecuador said it had 14 different indigenous nationalities and 18 ethnicities in the country and had taken measures to foster the participation of indigenous women in policy formulation and political life, including through affirmative action on employment of indigenous women with disabilities in the public sector.  Guatemala had put in place measures to prevent gender-based violence, and had created an office of the Ombudsperson for Indigenous Women, or DEMI, which sought to tackle violence against indigenous women and girls as a community issue rather than an individual issue.  International Development Law Organization said that in order to overcome barriers to access to justice for indigenous women and girls, there was a need to sensitize judges, prosecutors and other justice and legal professionals on the rights of indigenous women and girls, and to strengthen protection, prosecution and support services to combat violence against women.  China said that States with indigenous peoples should take measures to prevent violence and strengthen measures to combat that violence, while the international community should give recognition of the special role of women and work on fostering gender equality and improving the status of women.  United States welcomed continued United Nations’ attention to violence against indigenous women, and asked the panellists to elaborate on good practices and on enhanced cooperation with States and tribal Governments that could resolve that problem.

Australian Human Rights Commission noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were 34 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of violence, adding that it was essential to provide them with adequate and culturally sensitive support services to help with emotional and physical healing.  Defence for Children International stated that factors such as age and gender led to discrimination on a multidimensional basis, making girls and women more vulnerable than other members of the indigenous community, and it called on States to adopt a national agenda to reduce such violence.  Action Canada for Population and Development, noted that the legacy of colonialism, perpetuated by post-colonial power structures, patriarchy, gender norms and stereotypes and neo-liberal economic policies, excluded indigenous women from development paradigms, and increased their vulnerability to violence and abuse.  

Remarks by the Panellists

HANNAH McGLADE, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Senior Indigenous Fellow and Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, Australia, said that the issue of violence against indigenous women was a major human rights issue in Australia and the world.  If the commitment came from the level of States, better policies could be developed to ensure indigenous women’s access to justice.

VICTORIA TAULI-CORPUZ, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said that some indigenous communities practiced banishment for those committing acts of violence against women.  Including boys and men in measures to fight violence against women was also very pertinent.

AILI KESKITALO, President of the Sami Parliament of Norway, said that it had been inspiring to listen to ideas from the floor.  When discussing root causes and holistic approaches, part of the solution could be the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  In the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014, States had obligated themselves to make national action plans for implementation.  That might be a way forward for a holistic approach to those issues.

OLGA MONTÚFAR CONTRERAS, Director of Fundación Paso a Paso in Mexico, said that it was crucial that justice operators were trained to deal with indigenous girls and women with disabilities. 

Discussion

Paraguay asked about the role of local governments in effectively guaranteeing the rights of indigenous women in their constituencies.  United Kingdom said it had taken steps to increase protection from discrimination and violence against all women and girls, and in 2014-2015 had reached the highest level of prosecutions and convictions for domestic abuse, rape and sexual offences.  Mexico said that the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples was carrying out activities to prevent violence in indigenous communities, taking into account cultural features and various forms of gender-based violence.  Colombia asked about successful measures to provide access to justice to women and prevent re-victimization when there was a conflict between ordinary justice and indigenous justice.  Senegal stressed the need for a comprehensive approach to violence against indigenous women and girls which would recognize the historic causes of this phenomenon.  France stressed the difficulties experienced by indigenous women and girls in accessing police and justice due to discrimination and exclusion.

United Nations Population Fund said that a 2013 study on violence against indigenous girls, adolescents and young women had shown higher prevalence of harmful practices affecting indigenous young women and girls, such as labour exploitation, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and higher exposure to sexual violence and trafficking.  Australia asked the panellists to elaborate their views on how to improve the partnerships between Governments and indigenous communities that were vital to addressing violence against indigenous women.  Fiji said that in its experience as a country with a majority indigenous population, it was difficult to say whether violence against indigenous women was higher than among the general population.  Albania noted that States had the prime responsibility for protecting and promoting the human rights of indigenous women and girls, State policies should be inclusive, and practice of legislation that discriminated against indigenous women should be abolished.  Council of Europe reminded that its Istanbul Convention broke new grounds by requesting States to criminalize various forms of violence against women, including physical, sexual and psychological violence, as well as stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilization.  Namibia stated that efforts to curb violence against indigenous women and girls had to be based on a holistic approach that recognized that such violence was deeply influenced by ethnicity, gender and historical factors.

Indian Law Resource Centre said that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Outcome Document of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples had to be implemented by States and by the United Nations.  Graduate Women International (GWI), in a joint statement with, International Alliance of Women; Zonta International; and International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education (OIDEL), called on States to ratify existing conventions that called for equal rights to education for indigenous girls and women, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain raised concern regarding ongoing policies of discrimination against the female Bedoon populations in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and asked which steps the Saudi and Kuwaiti Governments could take to ensure that all Bedoon populations had the opportunity to gain citizenship and enjoy basic human rights.  FIAN International said that in Brazil there were many indigenous communities and each people had their own form of organization that was dominated by men.  Indigenous women had to fight against masculine stereotypes and the lack of political power in the implementation of programmes intended for indigenous women.  Conselho Indigenista Missionàrio said that indigenous women’s mobilization gave rise for them to have impact on power, adding that visibility needed to be given to actions, and that some common themes included economic empowerment and the right to land.

Algeria said that indigenous populations should enjoy all human rights in all instruments, adding that there should be adaptation of measures to be taken locally and nationally.  Venezuela said that violence against women was intrinsically linked to heritage from colonialism and neo-colonialism, which could be seen in the structures of countries, asking the panellists to elaborate on challenges they had identified.  Bolivia said that the debate called on the international community to think carefully and come up with practical recommendations, including for women with disabilities.   Nigeria deplored that the magnitude of discriminatory socio-political and economic practices and harmful gender-based stereotypes continued to persist despite numerous international instruments available to address that injustice.  Tunisia noted that putting an end to violence had to be inclusive.  The international community had to raise awareness on indigenous women and their problems, and to build their capacity while respecting their particular cultures.  Iran stated that indigenous women and girls were part and parcel of the agenda for sustainable development.  They faced multiple forms of interrelated forms of violence and abuse.  Iran called on States to address those problems. 

Spain called on the international community to employ all the means at its disposal to deal with discrimination against indigenous women, notably to allow them access to justice and legal remedies, to empower their economic independence, and to ensure their full political participation in society.  Egypt noted that violence against indigenous women and girls was one of the most important human rights challenges of the day.  Confronting those abuses could only be achieved through a comprehensive approach by States.  Honduras thanked the panellists for drawing attention to violence affecting women and girls, adding that to come up with responses on the causes of violence was a challenge that called for short-, medium- and long-term responses.  Maldives said that advancing women’s rights continued to be a top priority for Maldives, and that the country had successfully enacted relevant legislation.  Republic of the Congo said that the new basic law of Congo guaranteed the same rights and duties to men and women, adding that an advisory body had been created and that the Ministry for Justice and Human Rights had been charged with promoting the human rights of the indigenous population.

Concluding Remarks

OLGA MONTÚFAR CONTRERAS, Director of Fundación Paso a Paso in Mexico, said that the role of the State was to set aside greater resources in the budget to provide sufficiently for women and girls with disabilities.  The participation of women and girls with disabilities had to be increased.  Public policies should be designed to meet the real needs of people, and a multifaceted approach was needed in that regard.

AILI KESKITALO, President of the Sami Parliament of Norway, in response to the question by Australia, said that Australia and other States could fully support and implement the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.  The Human Rights Council needed to ensure that the issue remained high on its agenda, and to submit concrete proposals for follow-up actions.  Today’s panel discussion was certainly not enough.

VICTORIA TAULI-CORPUZ, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, stated that if States were not addressing the structural causes of domestic violence against indigenous women and girls, then not enough efforts were being made.  Data would need to be disaggregated, she stressed.  The call was reiterated to establish a “femicide watch” to keep track of the numbers of women, including indigenous women, killed.  There should be more prosecutors working on those issues and providing access to justice to violated women.  Indigenous rights defenders ought to be protected.

HANNAH McGLADE, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Senior Indigenous Fellow and Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, Australia, said that many indigenous women had a great level of expertise and knew what problems were when it came to the violence against them.  Indigenous women had to be fully participatory in the criminal justice system.

ALBERT KWOKWO BARUME, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and panel moderator, thanked the panellists for the very informative presentation, and the number of statements and questions reflected the scope of interest in the subject.  There was alarming data revealing disproportionate levels of violence against indigenous women.  Disaggregated data was still needed.  Indigenous women and girls with disabilities and those affected by conflict were exposed to a particular predicament.  There was a particular prevalence of inaccessibility to justice, even while access to justice continued to be a main pillar on which respect for human rights depended.  Indigenous communities frequently applied harmful traditional practices towards their women and girls.  The issue of indigenous peoples ought to continue to enjoy great attention by the Council and other stakeholders.



For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC16/132E