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Indigenous and African-descendant women: a double burden of discrimination.

The World Conference against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held by the United Nations in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001 focused international attention and individual awareness on a long and ominous list of forms of discrimination and persecution based on race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability and gender.

Why it has taken so long acknowledge this terrible reality in which millions of women and men throughout the world are treated as inferior? Fear of commitment, reluctance to become informed, the comfort of ignorance, and the ease of social indifference all have contributed to delaying a response to this concern based on a human rights perspective.

Why did we need a world summit to bear testimony to the undeniable facts that racism, discrimination, intolerance and related forms of intolerance have been deadly weapons that have devastated entire peoples? There is no excuse for silence. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye.

Millions of Reasons

There are 350 million people of indigenous origin who speak autochthonous languages in more than 70 countries. In Latin American and the Caribbean alone, there are well over 40 million indigenous people belonging to over 400 ethno-linguistic groups, at least half of them women. Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala and Bolivia have sizeable indigenous populations, particularly in the rural areas. In Guatemala and Bolivia, over half the population is of indigenous origin.

The African Diaspora reaches the four corners of the Earth. In our region there are some 120 million people of African descent. Nearly half the population of Brazil is black, and in Central America the population is indigenous, black and mestizo (of mixed European and indigenous descent).

For centuries people of indigenous, African and mixed-race descent have been the object of discriminatory policies or ignored and marginalized. Rates of poverty and lack of access to health, education, decent housing, work and other benefits of development are much higher among these communities. Their daily realities are marked by human rights violations in the form of intolerance, discrimination and violence. The dominant neoliberal economic system exacerbates these conditions by worsening poverty and imposing models of development based on the exploitation of the workforce and natural resources.

Double and Triple Discrimination

Black and indigenous women suffer double discrimination due to their race/ethnicity and their gender. If they are poor, rural or live in shantytowns, or work in the informal sector, another level of discrimination is added.

This is not a recent occurrence, but a situation that dates back centuries. Prior to the conquest of the Americas, indigenous women were valued as contributors to the subsistence economies of the family and community. The market-dominated economic structures imposed by the European conquerors put a violent end to this way of life. Indigenous women were forced to participate in a new order that exploited them as sexual objects as well as disposable labor. Black women brought as slaves from Africa faced similarly abusive conditions without receiving any form of remuneration or benefit. These women left their labors, and indeed their lives, in the plantations, haciendas, estates and businesses where they produced goods for exportation to enrich those who exploited and abused them sexually as well as economically.

As our nations transformed politically and economically, these women failed to see much change in their standard of living. Outright slavery was replaced by other forms of servitude, and the benefits of development only spread so far. In the context of the economic crises of recent decades, the situation of black, indigenous and mestizo women has deteriorated further as they have migrated to strange lands to provide for their families.

In addition to their economic and social marginalization, these women also confront barriers to the preservation of their cultural identity and values, their religious beliefs and even the aesthetic values of their peoples. The dominant culture violently refuses to acknowledge the value of their history and traditions as indigenous and African-descendant women. Just as the conquistadores crushed the indigenous societies some 500 years ago, today white, western culture conspires to impose its empire on this rich heritage.

A Urgent Challenge

Today, feminist and women's organizations face the tremendous challenge of guaranteeing that our agenda reflects the demands and needs of indigenous and African-descendant women who are organizing themselves with increasing strength to bring these issues to a range of global fora.

Mindful of this reality, the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network is preparing a special edition of the Women's Health Collection dedicated to these priority issues. This publication will share the voices of black and indigenous women from our region who encourage us to act together to demand answers as they denounce the double and triple discrimination that they endure in our societies.

This section of the Women's Health Journal includes some of the valuable contributions of regional organizations that undertake a range of activities with indigenous and African-descendant women -including health care services, counseling for victims of violence, training workshops and income-generating projects- a first, brief glimpse into a topic that for too long has remained unaddressed and silenced.

"We urge States to boost cultural development, promoting peaceful coexistence free of racism, xenophobia and intolerance, through their regular programmes in education and social communication in general. Governments and societies must undertake the obligation of a cultural and political involvement, which will criticize and denounce stereotypes that are racist, xenophobic or intolerant of cultural diversity."

Art. 42 Declaration, Conference of Citizens Against Racism, Xenophobia, Intolerance and Discrimination, Forum of NGOs and Civil Society Organizations of the Americas. Santiago, Chile, December 2000.

"We draw attention to the fact that globalization has entailed the deterioration of the economic, social and cultural conditions of popular social sectors, worsening the levels of poverty and social exclusion, exacerbating the inequalities between and within States, and countering the efforts underway to fight racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance."

Art. 26. Declaration, Conference of Citizens Against Racism, Xenophobia, Intolerance and Discrimination, Forum of NGOs and Civil Society Organizations of the Americas. Santiago, Chile, December 2000.

"We consider that racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia are directed in a differentiated and more profound manner against women, and exacerbate the precarious conditions and exclusion from the political, social and economic system of indigenous, Afro-descendant and migrant women. We therefore exhort States to incorporate the gender perspective into all programmes of action against racism, racial discrimination and all forms of intolerance."

Art. 9. Declaration, Conference of Citizens Against Racism, Xenophobia, Intolerance and Discrimination, Forum of NGOs and Civil Society Organizations of the Americas. Santiago, Chile, December 2000.
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Title Annotation:Campaign
Author:Gomez, Adriana
Publication:Women's Health Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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