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Minority Women Fight Back Against Mistreatment

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 6 2011 (IPS) - Women in minority and indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to wide-ranging forms of violence, abuse and discrimination, according to a new report released Wednesday by Minority Rights Group International (MRG), a human rights group that works on behalf of minorities and indigenous peoples.

With limited access to political mechanisms of justice and protection, they are disproportionately the targets of attacks and discrimination, during times of conflict or peace, the report said.

Dalits in India, Muslims in Britain, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Batwas in Uganda, Aborigines in Australia – these are just a few of the communities spanning the globe who are sometimes welcomed, but more often not, by the dominant national cultures.

The disproportionate levels of abuse and discrimination that these women face – including rape, other forms of sexual violence, and trafficking, from government forces, paramilitaries, or members of their own communities – can be attributed to the fact that their identity exists at the intersection of two rather marginalised groups, women and minorities, making them easy targets.

In spite of the compound disadvantage, these women are standing up for themselves and challenging the status quo, even as government policies fail to provide the rights and protections they deserve, or, in some cases, attempt to write discrimination into their very laws.

One hundred percent of Batwa women in Uganda interviewed by MRG said that they had experienced some form of violence, whether ongoing or in the past year.

Dalit women in India experience horrific discrimination as part of the “Untouchables” within the traditional caste system. Even though “untouchability” is illegal according to India’s constitution, in practice, it is alive and pervasive in many forms.

In Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, ethnic Uzbek girls and women were subject to widespread rape and sexual violence. Yet in women’s crisis centres sympathetic to them, they could not receive residential support due to “hostility among ethnic Kyrgyz clients”, the report said.

Speaking up

In countries where discrimination towards minorities is the norm, women from these groups have a particularly difficult time ensuring that they are protected, in law and in reality, from attacks and that perpetrators do not enjoy impunity, especially where socio-economic and geographic factors entrench discriminatory practices further.

Because minority and indigenous women often hail from poor socioeconomic backgrounds and remote areas, they have less access to education, employment, or justice. Without these opportunities, their channels through which to fight violence and discrimination are extremely limited, and opportunities to ameliorate the situation are scarce.

Nevertheless, “many are actively fighting for their rights as women, for the rights of their communities and for their rights as minority or indigenous women,” the report stated, even at the risk of violent reprisals from majority communities or their own.

Dalit women “have come out very powerfully to fight for their rights and for justice,” said Manjula Pradeep, executive director of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit human rights organisation.. “They are the ones that are really fighting for the rights,” even if they receive little support from families and community members, she said.

For instance, over the nearly two decades that Pradeep has worked with Navsarjan, she has witnessed a shift in reportage of cases of abuse. When she first began, few cases of violence against Dalit women were reported to police. Now, she says, women are coming out and speaking about sexual abuse by landlords and employers.

The double standard applied to Dalit women exemplifies the horrors they face. “At one level you don’t allow a Dalit woman to fetch water from a public well, but on the other side you rape the woman,” Pradeep said. “At one level you see her as a defiled person, somebody who is very impure, but you rape the same woman.”

Developed countries have poor records too

“Politicians in the developed world sometimes speak as if the violation of women’s rights was simply a problem in the developing world,” Mark Lattimer, executive director of MRG, told IPS, “but the evidence shows that that is simply not the case.”

In Australia, for instance, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women determined that indigenous women “have fewer opportunities, are less likely to participate in public life, and have more restricted access to justice, and to quality education, health care and legal aid services.”

In Britain, Muslim women endure verbal and physical assault, and different countries in Europe have sought to ban the hijab or fine those wearing it.

Nor is discrimination limited to the practices of daily life – it reaches the higher echelons of society as well. Lattimer noted that “in almost every developed democracy, minority women are grossly underrepresented in politics, in the judiciary, in corporate boardrooms and in other positions of power and influence.”

What we need to do is listen to women who speak out and risk their lives to protect their rights, he concluded, “and take seriously their own recommendations for how their rights should be protected.”

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