By Laurence Pantin
Monday, December 2, 2002
A first-of-its-kind meeting will ask indigenous women what obstacles are in their way of good health and educational opportunities--and how they think governments should address their needs.
MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)--Silvia de Jesus Maya never had the chance to go to school. Maya, a Mazahua Indian, started working when she was a girl, married when she was 14, and had the first of her four children when she was 16. It was only after living through police repression, stone throwers who mocked her traditional dress and the unsolved murder of her father by thieves in 1996 that she decided to learn how to read and write so that she could defend herself, herfamily and her people from discrimination. By then, she was 37 years old.
Maya founded el grupo Mansion Mazahua, A.C. (the Mazahua House Group) in Mexico City, where indigenous women study together and advocate for education and housing for their communities. This week, 260 indigenous women like her are in Oaxaca, Mexico, to brainstorm about how to increase the political representation of Latin America's 25 million indigenous women and improve their health, literacy and treatment on the job.
Mexico has no national plan that specifically addresses the problems of its indigenous women, says Alfonso Alem, executive director of the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation, which organized this first Indigenous Women Summit of the Americas from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4. Indigenous women are directed to programs for women living in poverty, as if "poor" and "indigenous" are synonyms, Alem says.
And, what government help there is, is useless, adds Maya, a resident of Mexico City since she was 2 years old.
"On the contrary, it makes us vulnerable," she says. "The most important thing that the government should give to indigenous peoples is education and work projects, instead of giving money."
The scant research on the status of indigenous women in Latin America speaks to their lack of visibility, Alem says.
"If we look at the rates relating to heath, mortality, birth or education, the most terrible numbers are always concentrated on indigenous women," says Paloma Bonfil, coordinator of indigenous women's programs at the Mexican president's Office for Indigenous Affairs. Based on her nationwide investigations, Bonfil estimates that more than 87 percent of indigenous women older than 15 are illiterate, compared with 51 percent of indigenous men. Similarly, life expectancy for indigenous women in Mexico is 71.5 years, compared to 76 years for their male counterparts.
Indigenous women elsewhere in Latin America have a similar quality of life, says Xochitl Galvez, head of the indigenous affairs office. Indigenous women are the poorest of the poor, she says: Because of their limited education, these women often aren't even aware of their basic rights and are consequently exploited, receiving lower wages if they are paid at all. Indigenous women also lack access to health services, are often victims of domestic violence and generally work longer hours due to lack of infrastructure in their villages. Because many of these villages lack water and electricity, women must walk long distances to get water and scavenge for firewood, Galvez says.