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Policy advocacy and partnerships for children's rights

At UNICEF panel, indigenous young people speak up for their rights

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0676/Markisz
Kâhu Pataxó (right), 19, from the indigenous village of Pataxó de Coroa Vermelha in Brazil’s north-eastern Bahia State, speaks at UNICEF panel discussion. His cousin, Urapinã Pataxó, 15, is beside him.

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, USA, 23 April 2010 – Two Brazilian youth advocates have travelled from their small village in the Bahia region of north-eastern Brazil to United Nations headquarters in New York to make an impassioned appeal for the rights of indigenous peoples.

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Urapinã Pataxó 15,  and Kãhu Pataxó, 19, live in Pataxó de Coroa Vermelha, a community that suffers from its proximity to popular tourist destinations. There are few ways for village families to make a living except by selling handicrafts. Young people there are at risk from drugs, sexual violence, discrimination and child labour.

Children are targets

“It’s very important to protect children that are the target of predators,” said Urapinã. “They are like meat in a market. This saddens me because in the past, we had our land to ourselves.”

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0679/Markisz
UNICEF Deputy Director for Policy and Practice Elizabeth Gibbons speaks at the indigenous-issues youth panel held at UNICEF headquarters in conjunction with the Ninth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Urapinã and Kãhu spoke yesterday at a panel discussion held at UNICEF headquarters. They came to the panel barefoot, dressed in traditional costume, with painted feathered headdresses.

“My people have been deprived of many rights that human beings are entitled to – health education, leisure. They are entitled to a dignified way of living,” said Kãhu.

Respect for cultural diversity

Indigenous people have come from all over the world to New York this week to participate in the Ninth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Urapinã is addressing the forum today; it’s the first time UNICEF has provided one of its speaking slots at the indigenous-issues forum to an adolescent.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0678/Markisz
Jessica Yee, 24, an indigenous Mohawk from Canada, takes part in the UNICEF-sponsored discussion on strengthening the human rights of indigenous children and adolescents through their active and meaningful participation.

At its own panel yesterday – which was designed to explore issues specifically affecting children and adolescents – UNICEF assembled a group that included Indigenous Youth Caucus member Jessica Yee and Plan International’s Guatemala Country Director, Ricardo Gomez Agnoli.

“We want to ensure that cultural diversity and the rights of cultural expression are fully mainstreamed in our world. It’s a challenge,” said UNICEF Deputy Director of Policy and Practice Elizabeth Gibbons. She added that UNICEF’s involvement in the past had been fragmentary – and that the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2009 provided an important reminder of the urgency of these issues.

‘We must do better’

Last year, UNICEF convened a meeting on indigenous peoples’ and minority issues with its staff across the globe, as well as representatives of other UN agencies. The meeting led to a roadmap and action proposal that will help improve UNICEF’s engagement on indigenous issues. The agency is also working on child- and adolescent-friendly versions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

“We can do better and we must do better,” said Ms. Gibbons.

In response to the needs in their region, Urapinã and Kãhu have formed the Pataxó Adolescents Group, which works with UNICEF to promote the rights of indigenous children and young people. The group’s members have researched their culture and traditions, encouraged discussion about rights, staged plays and produced booklets for distribution in village schools. Despite the enormous challenges, they remain optimistic that their voices are being heard.

“We are here to change the future – the future of our people,” said Kãhu.




22 April 2010: Urapinã Pataxó, 15, describes the conditions in his village in Bahia, Brazil, that led to him becoming an activist for the rights of indigenous children and young people.
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22 April 2010: Kãhu Pataxó, 19, discusses why preserving culture is so important to indigenous children and young people.
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