|© UNICEF video|
|From left to right: Antonia Alba (Panama), Ana Maria Alvarez (Guatemala), and moderator UNICEF Programme Officer for Latin America Liv Elin Indreiten.|
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NEW YORK, 11 March 2005 - Indigenous and Afro-descendent women from several Latin American countries came together at the United Nations on Thursday to exchange ideas, discuss the problems affecting their respective communities, and explore solutions in a special forum sponsored by UNICEF.
Seven panellists from Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Peru attended the meeting, which was a side event to the Beijing +10 conference. The Beijing +10 conference is currently under way to review the progress made in the 10 years since the World Conference on Women.
As they took turns reading from prepared statements, some of the women wept, overcome by the injustices they were reporting and by the opportunity to speak about them in an international forum.
Indigenous women in Latin America feel that they are discriminated against by their governments and society. Because they have very little participation in the political process, they have no means to protect their environment, customs, language, and identity.
“Because of free trade agreements, multinational companies are exploiting our mines, decimating our rivers, our animals, and our environment,” said Ana María Álvarez, a native of Guatemala and member of the Beijing +10 committee.
|© UNICEF video|
|The conference in progress.|
“Our governments are too far removed from the reality of our indigenous communities,” said Peruvian Amalia Etsam, a community leader in the Amazon. “Grade teachers are raping our children and they are allowed to go unpunished.”
Though they came from different countries, the problems they face are alarmingly similar. They all reported racial and cultural discrimination, the decimation of their natural habitat, the migration of their young to the cities, the slow erosion of their cultural identity, government neglect, and human rights abuses.
“The tremendous cultural diversity represented here is in danger and the state has a responsibility to protect them,” said UNICEF Representative in Guatemala, Gladys Acosta. “We are willing to work with countries to ensure the preservation of indigenous culture,” she added.
Jeaneth Cooper Cooper, a Costa Rican activist, represented Afro-descendents. She spoke about the need to give women of colour in her country fair representation in business and more visibility in government. “We want black women to have access to jobs traditionally given to men. And even when women reach a certain position in society, they are usually white or ‘mestizo’, as we call them, and they don’t necessarily look after the needs of black women,” she said.
The meeting was conducted entirely in Spanish and moderated by Programme Officer for UNICEF in Latin America, Liv Elin Indreiten. The women’s testimony also brought many of the attendees to tears, including several men. “The first priority is to give indigenous women an opportunity to raise their voices,” said Acosta. “But a great deal remains to be done,” she concluded.