By Elizabeth Gunggoll
The encroachment of Western culture on Indigenous communities has posed a myriad of consequences for Indigenous peoples – Indigenous languages are increasingly endangered; western education is replacing traditional knowledge; youth are moving to urban areas in droves. What starts as marginalization of an entire community by the government or state can turn into a power struggle of the sexes. More often than not, Indigenous women find themselves losing the social status they traditionally held, to have it replaced by a role that gives them less influence in their household or community.
In this way, Indigenous women are marginalized twofold: one, as being Indigenous, along with the rest of their community, and two, as women. For example, non-Indigenous women across Africa lack rights to inheritance, property/livestock ownership, and land tenure. The same lack of rights for Indigenous women, paired with ethnic and political marginalization that all Indigenous peoples face, predisposes them further to situations of poverty, gender-based violence, a lack of education, and other disadvantages.
Ma’an – The Forum for Bedouin Women’s Organizations in the Negev
For the Negev Bedouin community in Israel, women have lost their traditional respected status and societal roles due to increased discrimination from the state, to the point where many Bedouin villages are considered “unrecognized”. This marginalization from the state gave rise to the marginalization of Bedouin women from their own community. Bedouin women face a multitude of gender-based challenges, including polygamy, domestic violence, child marriages, and a patriarchal family and community structure that has lasting consequences into adulthood. For Negev Bedouin women, their greatest limitation is a lack of both individual and community awareness of rights and entitlements. So the question is: what could be done to help Indigenous Bedouin women regain their autonomy, and restore their ability to trust others?
Ma’an – The Forum for Bedouin Women’s Organizations in the Negev works to provide spiritual, emotional, and physical healing for Bedouin women who are or have been subjected to domestic violence and/or sexual abuse. In a community where seeking help is often discouraged, trust is developed between those reaching out for help and those lending “first aid”, by offering sympathy as well as practical solutions to their struggles. The fact that most of the volunteers are Bedouin women with similar experiences offers a degree of comfort to those seeking help, because “they themselves [face] the traditional and patriarchal codes.” With the help of First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund, Ma’an has created a comprehensive system for women’s protection, which involves a Hotline, the Ma’an legal team, and staff to address the welfare and wellbeing of Ma’an’s beneficiaries. Such an attentive project enables an environment where Indigenous Bedouin women can work toward their own security.
“With guidance and support the beneficiaries will develop to be able to effectively advocate for their rights within the community, so creating and contributing to an inclusive society by participating in decision making processes that impact upon their lives and that of the wider community.” – Ma’an– The Forum for Bedouin Women’s Organizations in the Negev
Ultimately, Ma’an’s goal is for Indigenous Bedouin women to regain the respect, strong social footing, and economic capabilities they once held alongside their male counterparts. By promoting women’s rights and status in the Negev Bedouin community, the project will build on the community’s traditional values and strengths of respecting women’s roles.
Kakenya Center for Excellence
While some Indigenous women’s groups are trying to return to their traditional gender roles, others are looking to transcend traditional values in order to broaden their horizons. As a young girl growing up in a Maasai village, life is usually predetermined according to cultural traditions, and girls are expected to halt their schooling at a young age to become wives and mothers. Young Maasai women might not consider more prosperous and enlightening opportunities, simply because they aren’t aware of them. This cycle of marginalization is reinforced from one generation to the next, as a combination of doubting teachers and tribal elders “dictating [their] present and future without considering [their] social, financial, or emotional well-being”. So, while young Indigenous girls are essentially dissuaded from continuing their education in order to assume the role of the childrearing homemaker, they lose the opportunity to gain important insight into their rights.
This is where the Kakenya Center for Excellence, another Keepers of the Earth Fund recipient, comes into play. Kakenya Ntaiya, born and raised in the Maasai village of Enoosaen in south Kenya, diverged from the traditional path of women in her village to attend higher education in the United States. After completing her studies, she returned to Enoosaen to create a school which works to “empower and motivate young girls to become agents of change in their community and country.”
[photo credit: Kakenya Center for Excellence]
“Girls are a valuable part of the community, and since the entire community is connected and thrives when each individual thrives, it is important to invest in girls as crucial members and contributors of society rather than only wives and mothers.” – The Kakenya Center for Excellence
The center works to reinforce the fact that women are independent, and therefore capable of carving their own path, however it does so without sacrificing traditional Maasai values. To do this, KCE provides an environment where the girls can thrive. The teaching of leadership skills and the spreading of knowledge in order to make informed decisions about reproductive health forms a curriculum that not only empowers, but also enlightens. In the Maasai village of Enoosaen, as in many rural villages of Kenya, Female Genital Mutilation is a rite of passage into adulthood that also traditionally prepares them for marriage – however the procedure is extremely painful and often inflicts lasting physical damage to young girls. Instructors in the center let the girls know that FGM is not an obligation while also maintaining the spirit behind the ritual, and the ushering into adulthood it represents, through their own graduation ceremony. All in all, the Kakenya Center for Excellence demonstrates that it is indeed possible to hold on to cultural values while still developing one’s community in a direction of gender-equality.
Highland Women’s Association
Indigenous women living in microregions of Guatemala are confronted with similar challenges. The Maya population, making up much of the country’s rural poor, suffered genocide from the Guatemalan government during their civil war. In 1992, four years before the end of the war, AMA, or the Highland Women’s Association (Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano), started working with widows and orphans in the Quiche region, one of the most affected by the armed conflict. AMA’s goal was to help the most isolated and marginalized women living in the highlands of Guatemala through community organizing, educational instruction, utilization of economic resources and production, and partnership that allows for a life of dignity, while initiating sustainable developmental processes.
“The mission of AMA is to break cycles of dependency by providing accompaniment and support to grassroots community leaders to foster transformational processes with Indigenous women.” The transformational process, meaning lifting people out of poverty through social change and economic dependency, is facilitated through small organized women’s circles led by trained community organizers, often of Maya descent. Empowerment and leadership skills are developed through a curriculum organized around four focal areas: self-esteem and mental health programming, education, civic participation, and private enterprise.
Traditional Maya practices and values are not lost with the installation of these new programs.
“In our meetings, we try to harmonize the material aspects of our daily lives with our spiritual life through our Maya worldview taught to us by our grandparents.” Guadalupe Ramirez Blevins, Directora, Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano
This is in part a large reason for their success as a system of development practitioners. The Indigenous Maya women are able to regain pride and empowerment in their traditional values, as opposed to distancing themselves from the culture that sparked a civil war wishing to extinguish their existence.
AMA’s success has helped to re-instill freedom of expression among Maya women as more respect is being given to Indigenous Maya communities since the end of the civil war. Three generations starting from AMA’s founder, Doña Carmen Romero, her daughter Alejandra, and now her granddaughters Jesica and Yolanda are able to vouch for the success and empowerment that AMA has brought to Indigenous Maya women. They say that community organization is required for community development, for having a voice and power in community decision making, and also in order to inspire other women to be active among their own group of women – whether they are serving in their local school, community committees, or being an active member in their church.
Pastoral Women’s Council
Safeguarding cultural values while escaping gender inequality continues to be an important factor in other community development projects as well. The Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC), based in Northern Tanzania, implements a variety of programs with this goal in mind. Not only does PWC work towards providing an education for Maasai girls, but it also lifts marginalized Maasai women out of poverty through exposure to property ownership and opportunities for income generation, while preserving an ancient Maasai practice of livestock herding.
[photo credit: Pastoral Women’s Council]
Aside from working with the Maa Council of Elders to lift the ban on women as livestock owners, exposure to women in leadership has had a great effect on the women of the Maasai community. Additionally, women are encouraged to openly discuss the positive and negative aspects of Maasai culture, to act on their findings, and to mobilize local efforts and resources. These factors, on top of increased awareness of their individual rights, caused Maasai women to finally feel empowered. The encouragement of such expression lets the Maasai women know they have a voice worth hearing, and everyone is capable of being an agent of change.
Since becoming a Keepers of the Earth Fund grantee, PWC has been able to undertake community meetings and gain community support, acquire and vaccinate livestock for Maasai women to breed, therefore facilitating economic independence, and train women on the diagnosis and treatment of livestock diseases.
All women, Indigenous or not, feel the effects of gender inequality on a daily basis. However, for women of Indigenous communities, the effects are often compounded by the unique marginalization of their Indigenous identity. As Western culture inevitably continues to influence more Indigenous nations, it is important to bring attention to and promote Indigenous values that value Indigenous women. Feelings of empowerment grow and thrive in programs where Indigenous women are sharing education and leadership with other women from their own communities, empowering them to be autonomous, independent members of society. There is still quite a bit of work to be done, yet more and more Indigenous women are living the lives of development practitioners, and being agents of change within their communities. As it becomes more evident that the entire community thrives when each individual is empowered, the reality of gender equality within Indigenous cultures comes more clearly into view.