Indigenous women in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have a long history of defending their rights. They have created organisations and networks to advocate locally, nationally and internationally to defend their individual and collective rights, identity, culture and territory. Demands like "Nothing about us, without us" remind us that to address the issues that affect Indigenous women most, we must listen to them.
The false belief that child, early and forced marriage and unions (CEFMU) is part of the culture of Indigenous peoples is widespread in LAC, and reinforces stigma and prejudice against them. But CEFMU does not only occur in Indigenous communities; it is rooted in structural inequalities, poverty, lack of access to health care and education, and gender inequality and violence that affect a wide range of communities.
At Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, we think it’s important to foster spaces where Indigenous women and youth can share their expertise on CEFMU, present proposals and participate in decision-making and strategy-building to address it.
In July 2021, we accompanied representatives from 11 organisations and collectives of Indigenous women and youth to a side event at the 14th Session of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), where they spoke about the issue from their own perspective. Here are four insights to guide our response to CEFMU with Indigenous communities.
1. CEFMU is driven by intersecting structural inequality and discrimination
Structural violence by institutions, governments and the state – including colonialism and racism – are among the main causes of CEFMU in Indigenous communities.Laura Hernández, National Coordinator of Indigenous Women (CONAMI), Mexico
Colonialism and racism intersect with violence and gender inequality, another systemic issue in LAC – and beyond. Colonialism created poverty along racial and ethnic lines, which – when combined with gender inequality – led to women being seen as an exchange commodity. As Yanka Millapan of the Mapuche Women's Network (Chile) explained, “[because of colonialism], it suited some impoverished families for adolescents and young women to go with older men who had economic power."
Violence and gender inequality are rooted in sexism, which imposes roles on girls and young women, and limits their right to decide and develop their potential. "There’s social pressure and coercion, so they can’t see any other option," explained Lizbeth Hernández Cruz of the Cochitlehua Mexican Exchange Centre. "Early marriage, then, becomes the only destination for girls and adolescents.”
Sexism also limits the control girls and young women have over their own bodies, particularly over their sexuality. As Claudia Ramirez of the Intercultural Youth Collective "Nuestras Voces" (Mexico) explained, "sexual maturity for girls and adolescents does not come with the right to decide about their own bodies."
Our response to CEFMU in Indigenous communities needs to be intersectional. That is, it needs to consider the multiple factors – including race, ethnicity, gender, class, location and education – that affect Indigenous girls and young people.
2. We need to work together across sectors and at every level to address CEFMU
We all have a role to play in dismantling the structural inequalities that perpetuate CEFMU in Indigenous communities. As Dialys Ehrman of the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Central America and Mexico explained: “We need to work together: organisations working in favour of children need to take ownership of the issue and make it a priority. We also need to review legislation and public policies from the state and from our communities."
We need to create programmes that allow girls and adolescents to see that there are other ways of being a woman, beyond being wives and mothers,Lizbeth Hernández Cruz, the Cochitlehua Mexican Exchange Centre, Mexico
3. We must change the idea that CEFMU is cultural
The mistaken idea that CEFMU is an Indigenous custom reinforces stereotypes about Indigenous communities and perpetuates the practice. We need to address this belief if we want to address CEFMU effectively.
"CEFMU has become normalised among Indigenous peoples and communities, and the false idea that it is 'cultural' is not helping to address the practice," said Jeanett Pariona Tarqui of the Network of Indigenous Youth Organisations of Ayacucho Ñuqanchik Maronijei Noshaninka (Peru).
4. Indigenous girls and young women are mobilising for change
Governments, non-governmental organisations and international agencies play a key role in supporting and strengthening the initiatives developed by Indigenous communities, particularly by girls and young women.
We need spaces for girls and adolescents where they can discuss their rights and train as community leaders. I dream of a world where all girls and adolescents grow up informed and safe. Let's not leave others to decide for us.Melody Juárez, Las Niñas Lideran, Guatemala
To learn more about the issue from these young Indigenous activists, listen to the full webinar (in Spanish).
In the time it has taken to read this article 49 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 3 seconds