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The fight for Latin America’s ‘invisible’ indigenous women

Latin America


We need to do more to empower the indigenous women of Latin America, if we’re serious about leaving no one behind, Sophie Richmond writes.

Across the Latin America region, recent years have seen a welcome drop in economic inequality, together with some advances in gender equality. Girls have better access to education, more women are in work, and many countries have ratified gender equality laws.

All this should, in theory, have added up to a brighter future for women: but for many women and particularly indigenous women, there has been little improvement to speak of.

The need to step up the pace of change will, today, take centre stage in a debate on the empowerment of indigenous women, at the 2017 Commission for the Status of Women, in New York.

This debate is a welcome sign that the voices of indigenous women are starting to be heard. Too often, indigenous women in Latin America have been so invisible that statistics about their situation are hard to come by: but some of the available data provides a snapshot of the types of inequality they face.

For instance, in urban Bolivia almost all non-indigenous women give birth with either a nurse or a doctor present, but only 60 per cent of indigenous women in rural Bolivia do. In Colombia, the rate of economic participation for indigenous women is 21 per cent, but is 36 per cent for non-indigenous women.

The literacy rate for Guatemalan indigenous women is only 58 per cent (the lowest by ethnicity and sex), compared to 83.7 per cent for non-indigenous counterparts: and a Guatemalan indigenous woman is twice as likely to die in childbirth than a non-indigenous woman.

Meanwhile in Brazil, increases in school enrollment have improved women and girls’ educational achievements – except, that is, in indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, hindering their career prospects. Not only does the pay and employment gap persist, but there is also occupational and hierarchical segregation, a Christian Aid study has shown.

The struggle for rights in Bolivia

Despite an improvement in education levels, indigenous women in rural parts of Bolivia still struggle to reach similar educational levels as men: in some cases, they find it harder to read and write in Spanish. What’s more, women do not have the same access to meetings where men learn about legislation and state policies, leaving them excluded from decision-making processes.

Although lands are communally owned in Bolivia’s indigenous territories, single women or widows are often denied the right to access and work these communal lands. Since it’s the men who can own land, they tend to be the ones considered heads of households, while the husband or eldest son are often invited to represent the family. This leaves indigenous women without a say in the decisions that have a direct impact on their lives and future.

However, things are changing. Two local organizations, CIPCA (Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado) and Soluciones Practicas have been working to promote the empowerment of indigenous women in the Bolivian Amazon, in partnership with Christian Aid and its Spanish arm InspirAction.

This Christian Aid-Inspiration project has focused particularly on promoting the role of women in the harvesting and processing of wild Amazonian cacao. In indigenous territories, cacao harvesting is spearheaded by the women, who have ancestral knowledge about how to process and prepare the beans. They are experts in quality control, and their input raises the chances of delivering a good quality product that can demand higher prices on the market.

With support, these women are now participating in producers’ associations, where they are assuming leadership roles and having a positive political and commercial impact. Not only do they represent the membership in commercial negotiations, securing better prices for everyone, but they also lobby local authorities to promote policies and programmes that favour cacao producers’ rights.

As household income from the sale of cacao has increased, families, community leaders and husbands are now recognizing that seasonal cacao harvesting is not merely a hobby for the women, but actually plays a strategic role in the family and the regional economy.

This is giving the women a voice in their community. One cacao producer, Rosalba Vargas, has seen a change in the respect and recognition she receives: once marginalized, she now holds several public offices, including as vice-president of a mixed association of cacao producers and president of the parents’ committee at her daughter’s school.

Yet, Rosalba still feels that there are barriers to the effective participation of women. She said: 'We need to empower, support and respect women: this is a challenge for both men and women. If we are going to promote equal participation, we need to change who does what… The reality is that as women, we will always prioritize the care of our children and our homes, but we call for support to be given to women.

'Accounts such as this highlight why any conversations about empowering women – whether indigenous or not – needs to factor in the burden of unpaid care-work, which disproportionately falls on women and girls, and can hold them back.

Indeed, Christian Aid’s work across Latin America has shown that much more needs to be done to ensure that specific groups do not get left behind: particularly groups who face multiple or overlapping inequalities, like indigenous women.

That’s why today’s debate at Women in New York is sorely needed.

However, this welcome focus on indigenous women must not be a ‘one-off’. As governments worldwide develop their plans to fully implement the Sustainable Development Goals, we urge them to listen and respond to the voices of Rosalba and others like her, who battle poverty and discrimination on a daily basis.

Sophie Richmond is Christian Aid’s senior policy and advocacy adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean, focusing on Economic Justice.

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