Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PARAGUAY: Indigenous Women Leaders Buck Discrimination

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, Nov 12 2009 (IPS) - More and more indigenous women in Paraguay are overcoming sexist resistance in their communities and emerging as leaders within and outside of their villages, fighting for the rights of their people and against discrimination.

Estela Maris Álvarez, one of Paraguay's emergent indigenous women leaders. Credit: Courtesy of Tierraviva

Estela Maris Álvarez, one of Paraguay's emergent indigenous women leaders. Credit: Courtesy of Tierraviva

Estela Maris Álvarez is one of these women who have decided to stand up and beat the odds, challenging the abuse and discrimination they face both within and outside their communities. “I had to go through a lot to get people to finally take me seriously as a leader,” she told IPS.

Álvarez is a member of the Enxet people, an indigenous group in Paraguay’s Chaco region, an area of semi-arid grasslands and thorny forests. She lives in La Herencia, a community in the western part of the country, located 340 km from Asunción.

La Herencia is made up of six villages comprising a total of 610 families and around 1,800 people, of which a third are women who are for the most part the heads of their households.

Álvarez, who at 40 is raising two kids on her own, has been practising natural medicine for a decade. She’s a nursing assistant and treats people in her community.

“It’s not easy for an indigenous woman to access a decision-making position in her community,” she said, recalling how when she started taking on a leadership role, she was never invited by the tribal chiefs to the important meetings. “But that didn’t stop me from going,” she added.

For social worker Livia Ruiz, who has conducted studies in Chaco communities like La Herencia, indigenous women leaders have gained visibility mainly from their increased involvement in activities outside their own communities.

“Within the communities, women have a significant involvement as leaders in activities that have to do with their people, but most tribal chiefs are still men,” said Ruiz, a member of the non-governmental organisation Tierraviva, which promotes the rights of Paraguay’s indigenous peoples, focusing on the Chaco region.

Even the governmental National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INDI) discriminates against women, as it only recognises men as leaders, “when it should actually be helping to strengthen women’s participation,” Álvarez said.

“If a group of indigenous women turns to INDI to protest about a specific problem that affects us or to demand respect for our rights, they tell us that we’re not tribal chiefs, and just ignore us,” she said.

According to Álvarez, the underlying reality in the indigenous communities of Chaco is that they’re governed by tribal chiefs with authoritarian and even violent attitudes. “They think that just because they’re chiefs they have the right to decide over the life of the community,” she said.

Violence against women is a chronic problem in the patriarchal culture that prevails in indigenous communities, where it is considered acceptable behaviour. “These are practices that breed discrimination, and which must be eradicated, even if they are part of the culture of our communities,” she added.

As a community leader, her position is clear. “The rights of indigenous women must be defended even over the interests of the communities,” because, moreover, it’s not true that you have to choose one or the other, she said.

Álvarez recalled the case of two native Mbya Guarani girls who were murdered in mid-October in a settlement in the northern province of San Pedro, which has the highest poverty rate in the country. They were tortured to death by people in their community who accused them of witchcraft. The local chief and three other people have been arrested in connection with the murders.

“Women need to come together to stand up for themselves, because individually we will never be able to wipe out these practices in our communities and prevent cases like this one from happening again,” the Enxet leader said.

Only through great effort and perseverance was Álvarez able to secure the right for women in her community to organise and hold meetings, and to participate and voice their opinions at the tribal assemblies in La Herencia. The local women are now also coming out of their community to share experiences and to network with women from other indigenous groups facing similar challenges.

Like in most indigenous communities in Paraguay, people in La Herencia live off subsistence farming and wage-earning work on farms and estates in the region, where men earn about 100 dollars a month as farmhands and women earn less than half that as domestics.

Many women also take in a little extra cash with the crafts they make when they’re not taking care of the house, children and family plot, or working as domestics.

Indigenous people in this land-locked South American country of 6.7 million number just over 108,000, or two percent of the population. Besides tiny white, black and Asian minorities, the rest of the population is of mixed European and indigenous descent. Both Spanish and Guaraní are official languages and are equally widely spoken.

From bad to worse

But while they often face machismo and gender violence at home, things don’t get any better for indigenous women when they leave their communities. In fact, in mainstream Paraguayan society, the discrimination only gets worse.

“Outside our communities we suffer rejection and discrimination. Even the State discriminates against us,” Álvarez said.

The 2008 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on human development in Paraguay, entitled “Equity for Development”, states that indigenous people suffer inequality and segregation in areas such as health, education, employment and access to decent housing.

That is borne out by the 2008 Indigenous Households Survey, which shows that only 1.4 percent of native households have access to drinking water, 39 percent of indigenous people over 15 years of age are illiterate, and only four in 10 have completed second grade, compared to an average of eight years of formal schooling for the population at large.

In Álvarez’s case, even though she’s worked for 11 years as a volunteer in the field of community health, her work is not recognised by government health institutions. “This is not just a cliché. As indigenous women we face double discrimination on a daily basis,” she said.

“I want to make our voices heard; I want the State and society to respect us for what we are; I want us to be given the place we’re entitled to,” said Álvarez, who is a member of the Commission of Indigenous Peoples and Communities of the Paraguayan Chaco (CPI – Chaco Py).

Ruiz noted that indigenous women are organising more and more in local associations or networks, where they are playing an increasingly influential role.

One example is the National Coordinating Committee of Organisations of Rural and Indigenous Women Workers. A national meeting in April served as a springboard to achieve recognition and respect for this network of associations that have emerged to defend indigenous women’s rights.

“Indigenous women are still struggling to survive, and their demands are focused on solving basic aspects of survival,” said Ruiz, who admitted that the struggle for gender equality is still in diapers.

In the activities that she carries out in her community, Álvarez focuses on women and young people, and is encouraged because “I’m finally seeing the fruits of six years of sacrifices.”

These fruits include the change in the way other members of the community treat her, as well as the community’s recognition of the fundamental rights of women. According to Álvarez, La Herencia has taken steps that are not very common in other communities.

“I can say that men respect us now. But it wasn’t easy to gain that respect, and it’s very difficult to hold onto it,” she underlined.

In her opinion it is essential for efforts to be focused on supporting and training indigenous women, for example, through family planning and alternative employment workshops, so that they can address the needs that affect their communities.

For Álvarez, “hope has arrived,” even if there’s still a long way to go. “I feel very proud when I see that the women in my community no longer have to go through what I suffered.”

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