Indigenous Women Are Being Marginalized at
the Beijing Conference
by Rosa Rojas
"It's a fact that the immense majority of the organizations that planned the Beijing World Congress (on Women) have marginalized indigenous women," claimed the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who estimated that because of this, "indigenous women will not be taken into account in the women's agenda."
In an interview with La Jornada, she warned that she will participate "with reservations" at the invitation of the UNESCO Director Federico Mayor in an event during which, in the company of some First Ladies and other personalities, a call will be made today (Monday, September 4) for a full and decentralized education for women at this end of the millennium.
Nevertheless, she underlined, "I don't represent anyone...I don't think that because of my participation, indigenous women have participated" or been given a "worthy place" in the preparatory meetings for Beijing.
She refered to the fact that she, like other indigenous women, exhorted that this situation be corrected, especially at the Mar de Plata Conference of 1994, when "I made a call, a petition, and thought that it was understood I didn't want to participate in the Mar de la Plata meeting because I thought the absence of indigenous women could not be justified just because Rigoberta Menchu participated and gave a message."
She reiterated that there have been initiatives taken by indigenous women themselves, like the conference in Ecuador at the end of July, whose proposals should be heard in their own voices.
Nevertheless, she said, it is "inconceivable" that even in Guatemala, her country, where indigenous women are the majority of the population in general, "there will be a quite large delegation going to Beijing without indigenous women." This definitively is "an undeclared racist attitude" that is expressed daily, where the country's educational, economic, political, military and social elites comport themselves as if there were no indigenous people.
On another issue, she said that her role in the promoting of the Decade of the Indigenous Peoples declared by the UN has been quite limited this year, since she has preferred to dedicate more time to Guatemala, "not only to actively participate in the country and play a defined and definite role, but also to return and get to know the country I left many years ago - to reencounter and discover it."
Yet she is considering a working plan for 1998 to help activate the Decade, including gaining the support of various institutions so that the Decade extends itself, because if the indigenous organizations and those with cultural and educational purposes don't make the Decade their own, it will be very difficult for it to succeed and prosper.
She lamented that, as occured with the International Year of the Indian Peoples (1993) decreed by the UN, and of which she was designated goodwill ambassador, the UN is diffusing "very little" of the advances that are occuring as to the rights of the indigenous peoples, while she did recognize that "at least in documents, on paper, there is a calendar for the implementation of the Decade of the Indigenous Peoples which foresees a series of events and national and international activities on the part of the UN."
"There are a series of offerings, intentions, and documents already approved that have required effort, work, on the part of the UN...[We indigenous peoples] have given our opinions at every one of these phases, and yet there has been no action. I suppose this isn't a UN priority. There's always a problem - the lack of money," she added.
She explained: "The indigenous question continues to be one of the most sacrificed, because it arises from ethics, and just to speak of indigenous people is a bruising and confrontative issue in regard to a series of themes and attitudes of the UN ... the Middle East war, Bosnia... which is why the governments don't wish to take up the issue as such. I think the UN doesn't have much interest in it, because of the business of ethnic minorities and the theme of diversity.
She also criticized some governments and institutions such as the European Economic Community (EEC), "who have promised large quantities of money for indigenous issues," along with a series of bureaucratic rules that aim to impose conditions "unacceptable" to the indigenous organizations.
"If you demand autonomy, this is a language that governments don't like, and the thousands of dollars that are announced for these proposals don't strengthen indigenous initiatives, but strengthen the lack of indigenous initiatives or promote divisions among the indigenous people themselves," claimed Menchu Tum.
"They wish to impose projects and political lines?"
"Yes, definitely. They impose rules in all this...For example, from my point of view and from the conditions of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, we will not accept any imposition that obliges us in the long run to be part of a coalition designed so that any institution whatever can be part of the project."
"I think this shouldn't be the case, and I have said that we respect all types of initiatives, even financial investment by particular organizations, because we want positive results in whatever form, and we must make sure these funds are well-administered, but our role is not to act from outside, but to become vigilant that works be done well and take the population into account and not be obligated to join an interminable dispute over who is representative and who not. One can't speak of the representivity of an institution that isn't indigenous. There are a series of roadblocks, and not only for indigenous people."
"The population has a series of initiatives and a great participation, yet the majority of these do their work alone, with much effort, and the bulk of the financing announced for Guatemala...if we add up at the governmental level the quantity pledged to Guatemala in the last two years, one would think that Guatemala would be rich in no time. But all these funds are conditioned, and as they don't break from paternalism and impositions, these funds will go to Guatemala, but will remain mere promises that are never concretized.
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