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Marginalized and violated: Minority and indigenous women are ignored victims of gender-based violence

10 December 2019

By Hamimu Masudi, Media Officer at Minority Rights Group Africa

When Faith Loyce Nangiro graduated with a Bachelor’s of Medicine and Surgery in October this year, her story made headlines in national media. Unlike her fellow graduates, Nangiro had walked a tightrope to achieve such a milestone. She had overcome forced marriage, a traditional practice rampant among her Karimojong ethnic community of North Eastern Uganda.

One of the headlines, read ‘Karimojong girl who refused early marriage graduates in Medicine.’ This is a powerful and rare story emerging from a minority community whose  indigenous pastoralist identity mean they face entrenched legal and social discrimination.

There are many girls and young women who find themselves in a situation similar to Nangiro’s, but because they aren’t lucky enough to navigate a web of traditional sanctions that come with standing up against a social norm, they are forced into early marriages. It’s in these marriages that they are expected to spend the rest of their lives – a life of subjugation and at risk of insidious forms of sexual, emotional and psychological violence.

While women and girls universally experience some form of gender-based violence (GBV), it’s a double tragedy for indigenous and minority women and girls. In several countries, there is a lack of legal recognition of their identity as a distinct community with distinct lifestyle, culture and a way of life, leaving them invisible in national statistics and social services.

Too often, due to inaccessible water supply – a common issue for indigenous and pastoralist peoples – women and girls will walk long distances in search of water, exposing them to sexual assault. Then, because of their marginalization, reporting and litigation is never a realistic possibility, let alone the #MeToo campaigns that have emerged in recent times as voices of survivors of sexual violence!

In other situations, because these communities are normally by-passed by universal health services and civil registrations, their children are more likely not to be registered at birth and thus miss out on certification. For instance, Kenya, with its much more robust civil registration program, the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014, p. 23 shows that only 61.8 per cent of children (under age of 5) are registered with a civil authority in the largely pastoralist North Eastern region, compared to 79.5 percent in Nairobi. As reports show, this lack of proof of identity makes young girls vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and similar abuses.

In particular, women and children from Uganda’s pastoralist Karamoja region have in most times been singled out as being defenseless to commercial sexual exploitation. Early this year, the Kenyan police intercepted 11 primary school girls from Karamoja region who were being trafficked into Nairobi. Similarly, an official of Kenya’s Anti-Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Unit, David Gitau revealed to an undercover newspaper reporter that; trafficked girls as young as 10 years old from Karamoja region are being enrolled into brothels in the hospitality industry in Kenya while others are ending up in the hands of Somalia’s Islamist group, Al-Shabaab.

Elsewhere, in the Congo basin, the Bambuti of the Ituri forest, and the Batwa of Lake Tumba region and along the Uganda and Rwanda borders, have experienced unthinkable violations. They have been systematically targeted by rape campaigns of various militias, such as Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), who superstitiously believe that engaging in sexual intercourse with an indigenous woman belonging to one of these forest communities confers special powers to the rapist. In its 2013 review of DR Congo, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, raised particular concerns about the situation of indigenous women, especially Batwa, around gender-based violence.

In Namibia, among the San, the International Journal of Human Rights published an article, which revealed that the San indigenous women are believed to be ‘generally sexually available and, when assaulted, do not “feel” raped.’ The article concluded that such myths not only perpetuate rape but also justify its occurrence and negate possibilities for seeking justice.

As this year’s theme for the ‘16 days of activism against GBV’ states ‘Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands against Rape,’ – it’s critical that State parties to UN agreements and the wider development sector, working in solidarity with the social movements championing the fight against GBV, approach interventions from the realities of indigenous and minority communities. Because as a distinct group living at the margins of mainstream society, they are often hit hardest!

Ethnic minority and indigenous women and girls face increased risk of rape crimes due to a ‘confluence of factors’ that interplay with gender inequality and patriarchal values to take away control over their bodies. As a result, women and girls from these backgrounds are exposed to all forms of violence including rape, child marriage, son preference, breast ironing, and Female Genital Mutilation.

As recommended in the report by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, working in concert with UNICEF, UNFPA, UN Women and ILO, the complex interplay and accumulation of risk factors at all levels of society(proximal communal relationship and history/demographic characteristics at individual level) must be addressed if minority and indigenous girls and women are to be free from all forms of violence, including rape.

Feature photo: Youth from West Pokot take part in an anit-FGM network meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.