Commissioner Soyata Maiga, Special Rapporteur on Women's Rights in Africa, heard directly from indigenous women about the difficulties that they and their communities face, at a special event held at the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The panellists from Ethiopia, Cameroon, DRC and Kenya highlighted health, education, employment and the right to land and resources as the critical issues that must receive attention if the situation of indigenous women is to improve. The women appealed to the Special Rapporteur to use her influence to exert pressure on their national governments and on donors, 'so that we can also enjoy the rights that other populations, other women, are enjoying Africa-wide.'
Melakou Tegnen, a social scientist from Ethiopia and expert member of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities of the African Commission, spoke about pastoralism in the Horn of Africa.
He explained that whilst pastoralism could vary, depending on religion, vegetation or social organisation, it was in itself a way of life, a world view and a mode of production. He stressed that pastoral women face multiple forms of discrimination and that in addition the consequences of conflict were often felt most by women.
'Pastoral women face a hierarchy of oppression on the basis of the following. First is gender, just because they are women. Second is that they are indigenous, just because of their ethnic group. Third, just because they are pastoralist.'
Marie Bwami Kasungula, a Pygmy woman from CAMV, Democratic Republic of Congo, bluntly outlined the discrimination that the indigenous Pygmy women face in her home country.
'Due to the current social situation the Bantu are those who have been able to be promoted in terms of education. They regard the Pygmy, those marginalised, as animals. But the discrimination doesn't come from the Bantu alone. There is an inter-discrimination within the Pygmy people. They prefer to send the boys to school.'
With 95% of Pygmy women in DRC being unable to read and write she said that this lack of education leads to other major problems.
'Based on that those Pygmy girls go to the city where they are exposed to sexual abuse, and where the rate of HIV is high.'
Jennifer Koinante, a Yiaku woman of the Yiaku Peoples Association, also spoke about the 'cultural discrimination' that prevents women from gaining an education and that denies her rights.
'Cultural practice encourages a woman to marry as early as 13. She is also required to go through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is another violation of a woman's right and after the woman is regarded as the property of the man.'
She said that there was a real need for information and training for women, saying simply, 'Human rights are never given free, you have to fight for them.' She said that it was vital that women know their rights so that they can present them at all levels.
Lack of education is just one of the problems faced by indigenous women. Julie Mendo, a Baka woman from Cameroon, explained that logging and other exploitation in the forests is preventing indigenous peoples from earning a living, resulting in widespread poverty.
'The forest is the place where the Baka earn their livelihood, but exploitation in the forest is preventing this. [National] Laws prevent us from our resources and our livelihoods and only allow us to consume, not to sell. We cannot conduct ourselves freely in our forest and feed our children. That generates malnutrition and gives us no means to send our children to school.'
She also said that there were problems of HIV/AIDS, due partly to long-held beliefs among the Bantu population that sexual intercourse with Baka, Bagyeli or Bakola indigenous women will cure them of disease.
Penninah Zaninkah, of UOBDU in Uganda, said that the root cause of the problems faced by indigenous women was their lack of land rights. She spoke about the situation of the Batwa in her country.
'The land rights of the Batwa from Uganda are not recognised. They were evicted from their forests to create the national parks. Since then they have not been able to access education. The universal education cannot really benefit those people who are landless.'
She went on to paint a disturbing picture of the situation of the Batwa women.
'You cannot live without income and so women are being used by men for something small and in the end they are left with HIV/AIDS. Women are dying whilst giving birth, they are dying on the way to the hospital and they cannot access their medicine that they used to get from the forest.
'You can see women's problems they come from lack of land, because countries are not recognising their land rights.'
The ratification of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa is a concrete step forward that States should take to recognise indigenous women's rights, said Jeanne Marthe Minkoue Mi-Ella from AGAFI in Gabon. She expressed her commitment to directly lobbying her government to ratify this important human rights instrument. Speaking about the specific problems pertaining to nomad women, Harouna Abarchi, from AREN Nodde-Nooto, Niger, condemned the rejection of the ratification by his government in 2006.
Speakers called on the Commission to draw the attention of the African Governments to the Conventions that they had signed, which should protect the rights of indigenous peoples and of women. They also urged the testing of HIV/AIDS, the setting up of mobile schools and the promotion of indigenous women into positions of leadership.
Liberate Nicayenzi, a Batwa woman from Burundi directly appealed to the Special Rapporteur to do more for the rights of indigenous women in Africa.
'I think what you have done for women's rights in general, can also be done for indigenous women. It is high time we focused on indigenous women. And we would like you to put this on your agenda and that you put special attention to this. We are ready to answer you and to collaborate with you.'
Soyata Maiga, Special Rapporteur on Women's Rights, responded by presenting ideas for how to move the issue forwards and by expressing her commitment to do more for the rights of indigenous women. Firstly she said that more work was needed and that everyone must have a role.
'There is a need to undertake research and collect data on the situation of indigenous women in Africa. Civil society partners must play a leading role in feeding into the work of the Commission and its Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities.'
She commended the work undertaken during the last sensitisation seminar held by the Working Group in Addis Ababa in October 2008 and suggested that another similar initiative dedicated solely to indigenous women should take place.
She spoke about education, an issue frequently raised during the seminar. Endorsing the views of speakers she said that education should be the sustainable response to indigenous women's issues. She also expressed her understanding of the participants' message that there is a need for indigenous communities to live and learn in coherence with their own cultural schemes whilst at the same time not being cut off from global models and developments. Education initiatives should be designed by indigenous peoples for indigenous peoples.
Finally, she applauded the organisation of the event and called upon partners to organise a regional seminar on indigenous women's rights at which a plan of action should be developed that addresses the multiple forms of discrimination indigenous women face in Africa.
This event took place in parallel with the African Commission's 44th Ordinary session held in Abuja, Nigeria from 10 to 24 November 2008. It was made possible with the support of the European Union, Rights and Democracy, IWGIA and Forest Peoples Programme.