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Report Launch: ‘Gender, Minorities and Indigenous Peoples’

2 February 2005

MRG and International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) – 12 January, 2005, UN, New York

This is a brief summary of some of the points raised, not a comprehensive account of everything that was said during the event.


Katrina Payne, MRG; Christine Chinkin, London School of Economics (LSE); Fareda Banda, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS); Lucy Mulenkei, Indigenous Information Network; Asama Shinmee, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact; Margareta Matache, Romani Criss; Pramila Patten, Member of CEDAW. (Gay McDougall, former member of CERD was unable to attend)

Committee Members Present:

Shin, Belmihoub-Zerdani; Dairam; Flinterman; Morvai; Saiga; Tan; Khan; Tavares da Silva; Popescu; Manalo (Chairperson); Simms; Gnacadja and Patten (Panellist)

Other Participants: 70+ persons – representatives of UN agencies, representatives of governments, NGOs

Christine Brautigam, Chief of the Women’s Rights Section of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) introduced the programme and welcomed everyone.

Katrina Payne, MRG, thanked DAW and ISHR for their assistance in organising the event and introduced the panel. She stated that the purpose of the meeting was to launch MRG’s report Gender, Minorities, and Indigenous Peoples by Fareda Banda and Christine Chinkin and to promote the issues and recommendations contained in the report. One aim of the report was to encourage CEDAW and other organisations working on women’s issues to incorporate minorities and indigenous peoples into their work and for CERD and organisations working on minority and indigenous issues to include a gender perspective in their work.

Christine Chinkin, London School of Economics (LSE) and co-author of the report, began by tracing the evolution of international law with regards to gender and racism. It started with the wide-reaching assumption that equality was sufficient to guarantee the rights of respective groups (either women or minorities) but soon it was clear that, in reality, equality was not enough. Equality by itself does not capture everything and thus those promoting women’s and minority rights must ensure that these groups receive extra and specific attention above and beyond equality. She also said that promoting just non-discrimination is not an appropriate model because discrimination against women is not limited to the same issues as discrimination against men. For example, reproductive rights can be a specific area of concern primarily for women and thus women require different and unique methods of combating particular forms of discrimination such as this. Thinking then evolved into notions of mainstreaming and integration which stressed that women’s rights cannot be addressed as separate but must be mainstreamed across human rights bodies into all work. She then reminded the audience that after the Beijing and Durban conferences, it was more clearly recognized that women have multiple (or intersecting) identities and these must be taken into account in order to ensure the rights of minority and indigenous women.

Fareda Banda, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and co-author of the report, highlighted that minority and indigenous women experience discrimination disproportionately in the sense that minority women are the worst off. She explained how minority women are discriminated against two fold due to their status as a member of a minority and also as a woman. One example she brought up was in inheritance laws. She also pointed out the conundrum that minority women face in dealing with the majority community. In many places, the majority group (usually the men of that group) will condemn the minority group (usually the men of that group) for ‘their’ treatment of ‘their’ women and use that as a reason to justify discrimination against or particular treatment of the minority group. This creates a ‘catch 22’ situation for the minority women. On the one hand minority women who claim their rights are open to the accusation by their community of ‘rejecting their culture’ and of wanting assimilation into the majority group while on the other hand, the majority group view those women, who do not actively accept the majority view of what they need, as oppressed. There is no recognition that women may wish to both improve their rights and defend their culture. She concluded by saying she did not have ‘the answer’ to this challenge.

Lucy Mulenkei, African Indigenous Women’s Organisation and the Indigenous Information Network, Kenya, raised the problem that in Africa there is a lot of confusion as to who is indigenous and who is not. She discussed the difference between ‘pastoralists’ and ‘hunter-gatherers’ and emphasized several thematic issues that are of pressing concern for minority/indigenous women in Kenya. These included ‘negative cultural practices’, marginalization of minority and indigenous women within mainstream development efforts, particularly education, and access to land and land rights. She also highlighted the difficulty of conveying the concept of gender and gendered approaches within indigenous communities. She described the conceptual limitations of using a ‘women’s issues only’ approach because this fails to fully integrate male members of a community into reform efforts. Finally, she explained that lack of knowledge about and access to CEDAW is a significant barrier to indigenous and minority women’s use of human rights instruments. She recommended better dissemination, in more languages, of information about, and documents produced by, CEDAW.

Asama Shinmee, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, Thailand, focused on the barriers to citizenship facing minority and indigenous people in Thailand and how this negatively affects all aspects of hill tribe women’s lives. Many of these women do not have Thai identity cards which then inevitably classifies them as stateless. Previously, knowledge of the Thai language was a requirement to obtain Thai citizenship and many who live in the mountains lack the ability to speak Thai. They were therefore denied identity cards. Although this provision has been redefined several times, women still face gender-specific difficulties in applying for Thai citizenship. Some officials involved, at times require women to sleep with them in return for issuing the identity card. Without Thai citizenship minority women, who have been marginalised, face numerous problems. They risk being arrested and deported to the border with Burma even though their communities have lived in Thailand for generations. Women who have been evicted are especially vulnerable and are at risk of sexual assault. Without identity cards, minorities and indigenous people in general are unable to participate in many necessary activities, for example they do not have the right to travel within the country or to make a living, or to obtain healthcare and education, rights which are only given to Thai citizens. Citizenship for all minorities and indigenous people is very important in guaranteeing their rights and given the particular problems facing women, it is an especially pressing issue.

Margareta Matache, Romani Criss, Romania, voiced the concerns of Roma women from South Eastern Europe. She explained that currently there is no cohesive Roma women’s rights movement where Roma women can come together in solidarity to promote the advancement of their rights. The failure to create an interconnected approach to minority and indigenous women within the human rights system that was noted by Christine Chinkin is illustrated by the inability of Roma women to find representation in either the women’s rights movement or within Roma rights movements. She highlighted that Roma women are hardly represented in leadership or in political positions. For example, there is not even one Romani woman in the national parliaments of South East European states (although there are two Roma women in the European Parliament). Other issues she highlighted as particular problems for Roma women were the cases of forced sterilization in Slovakia and discrimination in education in many countries in the region, particularly segregated schools and classes. She mentioned that domestic violence and trafficking are prevalent in the region but that NGOs working on Roma issues do not yet know how to deal with these problems.

Pramila Patten, Member of CEDAW, endorsed the report. She discussed how CEDAW has addressed minority and indigenous peoples in its work and what it could do better. She suggested how the various articles of the Convention can be used to better help minority and indigenous women around the world. She brought up the very real situation that many minority and indigenous women do not know where to turn to in order to address their problems. For example, many women are not aware of or do not understand the procedures of the Optional Protocol and thus it has not been used very often or at all as a mechanism for justice.

Katrina Payne concluded the panellists’ presentations by reiterating and outlining the main issues that had been raised.

1. Access to health & employment; 2. Land rights; 3. International law relating to minority and indigenous women; 4. Culture as perceived by different minorities; 5. Political participation; 6. Citizenship

Comments and Questions from the Committee and other participants

Representative from the Romanian Mission: Enquired about the demands by the Roma for separate language and cultural education and questioned governments’ ability to meet such a demand without segregating Roma children in schools.

Margareta Matache responded that the Roma people did request that governments accommodate efforts to preserve and protect their culture and provide conditions for Roma children to learn their own language; however, she reminded the Representative that this is possible without forcibly segregating and marginalizing Roma children in schools, such as by establishing voluntary extra-curricular language courses.

Elsa Stamatopoulou, Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: What are the challenges that Indigenous women face in using CEDAW and the optional protocol? How can the international community enhance indigenous NGO access to these mechanisms?

Lucy Mulenkei replied stressing that CEDAW needs to be made more accessible for local populations to understand. For example she suggested simplifying the language in the convention and translating it into indigenous peoples’ languages. She strongly noted the importance of disseminating country reports and CEDAW concluding observations to the general public in each respective country. She wondered who currently reads the country reports, who reacts and responds to them, and what actions are generally taken once the report and CEDAW comments are made. She recommended that the country governments share their reports and make them public and accessible so that minority and indigenous groups can know what is being said about them or on their behalf. She also noted the importance for minority and indigenous groups to keep their culture in the face of emancipation and for their traditions to not be discarded as ‘primitive’.

Asama Shinmee agreed stressing that language was a very big problem because villagers and rural populations do not speak English and often also don’t speak the national language Thai. Thus it is very hard to reach them to teach and educate them about their rights and the mechanisms available for advocating for their rights.

CEDAW Member Heisoo Shin asked how the two main human rights instruments (ICCPR and ICESCR) are dealing with the tensions between multiple rights claims? Is there a hierarchy of minority/indigenous rights and gender rights?

Christine Chinkin responded and mentioned the importance of access to justice and restated the importance of not marginalizing women’s rights to one or two articles in the various treaties but to include and analyse them throughout all provisions. She noted the problems encountered by having separate gender articles and minority articles within the treaties. This results in the treaties, for example the ICCPR, being used in a compartmentalized way with neither minority nor gender issues being given full consideration. She noted the example of the veil issue before the Human Rights Committee.

CEDAW Member Victoria Popescu followed up the Romanian representative’s question by enquiring more broadly about the paradox between preserving identity and ensuring the participation of minority and indigenous groups in the majority society. She also emphasized that not only the international community can tackle such issues, but there must be action from minority/indigenous groups themselves.

CEDAW Member Krisztina Morvai posed several questions. She asked the opinion of the panel on the best methodology the committee should apply when examining state reports. In particular how she should approach delegations when they appear before the Committee and what types of questions to ask them with regards to gender and minorities. She also asked for their explanation of the issue of the veil in Western Europe.

Fareda Banda answered first on methodology. She suggested that the committee’s General Comment 25 is a possible framework to use, in that it highlights that states may need to take temporary special measures to eliminate the negative effects of multiple forms of discrimination. Another improvement would be for the committee to hold longer sessions meaning that more time is spent with the delegations in order to ensure that all questions and relevant issues are raised. She acknowledged the committee’s lack of time and understood that improving this was not something that was immediately possible. On the veil, she noted that page 25 of the report addressed the issue. The issue is the conflict between secularization and identity. She stated that there is a slight majority of Muslim women in France who actually support the ban on the veil but she questions whether the other 40% of women should be ignored. Noting that the French government sees the ban on the veil as encouraging the emancipation of women who are oppressed, she pointed out that many Muslim women would disagree that they are oppressed. So the argument is that the French government assumes too much.

Representative from the Russian Mission said he was delighted to see the issue of citizenship in Estonia taken up in the report. He noted similar issues in respect to Latvia and asked what practical steps could be taken to further minority rights on these issues.

Time ran out before the panellists could respond.

Katrina Payne concluded by thanking the panellists and urging all participants to think about how they could better address issues of multiple discrimination against minority and indigenous women in their work.