Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

UN Women, 23 November 2012

The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through the forest – one of many – an elderly woman died and another woman miscarried.

Indigenous women shared their concerns about development-induced violence,
and the strategies they have used to address it during the four-day meeting.
Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


For Lori Beyer, who is helping indigenous women contend with mining operations in the Philippines, gender-based violence has a different face. “Many of the male campaigners have to go into hiding,” she says. “It makes the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse.”

Although they come from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members from across Southeast Asia found shared ground during a recent consultation on violence against indigenous women, which focused on forms of violence that are worsened or caused by economic development projects.


Soi Tonnampet and Kruemebuh Chaya, both members of the Karen tribe from Keng Kra Chan, Thailand, share their experiences of violence and displacement with the group during a story-telling session. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker.


Organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and supported by UN Women, the meeting is part of work to connect indigenous women with each other, rights experts, and the skills they need, to define and respond to pressing issues. As decisions on the sustainable development framework are made, and countries – particularly ASEAN members – open up economically, the need to battle their invisibility and lack of public voice has become increasingly important.

“The impact of the violence on indigenous women that comes with militarization of indigenous territories, with the destruction of our natural resources and with the consequence of displacement, affects them not just as individuals but as a collective – through the social-cultural dimension of their identity and dignity,” says Joan Carling, AIPP Secretary General. “If [indigenous women] are not participating in any decision-making where it concerns them, then this issue is not being addressed”.

Although often found in areas of natural wealth, indigenous groups make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the poorest worldwide, according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Many contend with extensive damage, marginalization and human rights violations as a result of aggressive development processes.

For women, these harms can take on different forms. The influx of non-indigenous workers and security personnel into indigenous areas has seen prostitution increase, for example, along with sexual harassment and rape. As indigenous livelihoods are altered or destroyed, levels of gender-based violence often rise, and economic, social and cultural harms can affect women differently as their burdens shift or increase. Yet with lower levels of education, and held back by multiple layers of discrimination, indigenous women can struggle to highlight their concerns and lead change.

Despite language and cultural barriers the women found solidarity –
and lighter moments – during the consultation.
Photo credit: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact



Nevertheless, with support, women leaders are emerging as effective advocates.  The Chiang Mai consultation connected twenty-nine indigenous women from eight countries in Southeast Asia  with regional and international human rights experts, women’s rights and indigenous peoples rights advocates – including representatives from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP).  “At this workshop I can hear other country’s cases, and how they have overcome [them] so that I learn from them,” says Seng Mai, who has been helping indigenous and rural people to respond to development projects in Myanmar, through the Kachin Development Networking Group. “And I can hear about international law, such as customary law and CEDAW.”

Participants also shared positive progress – whether cases pushed into and through their criminal justice process, interventions triggered from the UN Human Rights Council, or in the case of the Philippines recently, a military court martial successfully campaigned for, for soldiers suspected of extrajudicial killing.

Other network members, with support from UN Women and others, spoke of meeting with decision-makers on international platforms like the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio+20).  Many spoke of placing force behind their lobbying using the women’s and collective rights frameworks, found in international instruments such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and CEDAW, known as the Women’s Convention.

Indigenous women from three areas of Indonesia meet with women from
Thailand’s Akha hill tribe, during the participants’ trip to a tribal village in
Chiang Mai. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker


At the conclusion of the meeting, participants agreed on an action plan – a series of research, advocacy and capacity building steps for the coming year. For women like Soi, Lori and Seng Mai, the solidarity and the strategizing are a source of knowledge, but also critical encouragement and moral support.

This is a chance for me to bring this information to my country, my village and the women there,” explains Seng Mai. “So in the future when we face problems, we can all address them.”


The Southeast Asia Consultation on Development, Access to Justice and the Human Rights of Indigenous Women: Combating development-induced violence against indigenous women, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 30 October – 2 November 2012, was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s Regional Programme on Improving Women’s Human Rights  programme in Southeast Asia