Discrimination against indigenous women. Statement by the Forest Peoples Programme to the 41st Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, 16-30 May 2007, Accra, Ghana

Discrimination against indigenous women. Statement by the Forest Peoples Programme to the 41st Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, 16-30 May 2007, Accra, Ghana


Delivered by:
Ms Treva Braun
Coordinator, Africa Legal and Human Rights Programme


Madam Chair, Honourable Commissioners, Distinguished colleagues,

Forest Peoples Programme once again commends the Commission for its ongoing work and commitment to indigenous peoples on this continent, spearheaded by the talented and dedicated members of the Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations. The Working Group has proved itself to be among the Commission’s most effective and productive special mechanisms and its work should serve as an example to other special mechanisms, both existing and yet to be developed. Forest Peoples Programme wishes to express its hope that the mandate of the Working Group will be extended and expanded over the years to come, particularly given that the recognition and advancement of indigenous peoples’ rights on the African continent is still in an embryonic stage in relation to the rest of the world.

More than any other group in Central Africa, and due to the discrimination and extreme poverty they suffer, indigenous forest peoples such as the Batwa of the Great Lakes region and the Baka and Bagyeli of Cameroon, collectively widely known by the misnomer ‘Pygmies’, experience disproportionately low levels of education and poor access to health care and other social services. They lack national identity cards and have no government information and assistance in obtaining them. Their collective rights to own, control, possess, and enjoy their ancestral lands and resources are routinely violated with impunity, through the creation of parks, forestry zones and agro-industry developments without consultation, consent or compensation. Indeed, virtually all governments of Central Africa continue to deny the very existence of indigenous peoples in their countries, thereby exacerbating and perpetuating their discrimination, marginalisation and social exclusion. Legal recognition, respect and protection of indigenous peoples and their rights in this region and across the continent remain elusive and decades behind other regions of the world.

Indigenous women and girls continue to suffer from both these generalized forms of discrimination and marginalisation, and from additional layers of gender-based discrimination. While the numbers of indigenous children regularly attending school are disproportionately low in relation to other societal groups, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels, the number of indigenous girls attending secondary school and university is often as low as zero to 15 percent of the total of indigenous students. Scarce family resources for education are spent on boys, while girls are expected to continue domestic work during their school years and to get married earlier than boys. This not only reveals a violation of the right to non-discrimination in education but foreshadows the related violations that indigenous girls will continue to suffer throughout their lives as a result of their disadvantaged position.

Indigenous peoples’ lack of land particularly affects women as they are mainly responsible for providing food for the family. Without land, they can scarcely generate enough income to meet the daily food needs of the family.

In this respect, it must be noted as well that indigenous women often carry a disproportionate burden of work in their households and communities, toiling long days and evenings without a fair and corresponding contribution of labour from their menfolk, some of whom spend their days idling in bars. This inequality in the division of labour is not a feature of traditional hunter-gatherer societies, but is a product of their forced expulsion from their ancestral forests and resulting loss of their traditional cultural and societal systems and values, which were relatively egalitarian. Many indigenous women now also suffer emotional and physical trauma as a result of abuse, family neglect and domestic violence, largely due to men’s alcohol consumption. Alcoholism is a phenomenon seen in many indigenous societies that are facing cultural collapse, and where men are no longer able to carry out their traditional roles as hunters and respected providers for the family.

Polygamy continues to be practised by some indigenous men which undermines women’s dignity and threatens their survival by reducing access to land and resources, and which indigenous women find deeply objectionable.

Respect for the right to culture is critical for the world to retain its vibrant human diversity,however it should never be used as an excuse for or justification of sexual discrimination. This principle is upheld by many domestic and international legal institutions including the UN’sHuman Rights Committee, which has made clear that the right of minorities to enjoy their culture does not permit them to violate women’s equality. 

The Forest Peoples Programme respectfully requests that in all extended mandates of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the Working Group be requested to:


  1. consider the gender dimension and impact of indigenous rights violations,
  2. ensure that its research and information visits and all reports systematically collect and document data disaggregated by sex, and
  3. work in close collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa to ensure the greatest possible attention to and elimination of the multiple forms of discrimination and human rights violations suffered by indigenous women.


Thank you Madam Chair.