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Youth panel raises awareness on initiatives to advance the rights of indigenous peoples

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0636/Markisz
Marcela Tobón Yagarí, representing the Embera Chamí in Colombia, addresses participants at the panel on indigenous youth initiatives, held at UNICEF House in New York.

By Branwyn Lancourt


New York, 20 May 2011 – A compelling conversation on youth initiatives to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples took place yesterday at UNICEF House in New York. The dialogue aimed to raise awareness about how indigenous young people are taking leadership and making a difference in their communities around the world.


Held as a side event to the 10th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the discussion was organized jointly with the UN Indigenous Youth Caucus, the UN Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Programme on Youth and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.


Youth participation is essential

The event kicked off with the premiere of ‘Pataxó Adolescents, Promoters of Citizenship,’ a video that brings together images, testimonials and opinions of indigenous adolescents. It was produced as part of a joint project by UNICEF and Instituto Tribos Jovens, a Brazilian civil society organization.


UNICEF Participation Specialist Ravi Karkara moderated the discussion that followed, featuring a panel of youth representatives from different regions who passionately addressed a broad spectrum of concerns that directly affect their lives.


Although the young people speaking to the packed hall came from disparate communities separated by language, culture and tradition, their overarching message was singular: Youth participation is essential to effecting social change and realizing indigenous rights.


Amala Groom, representing the Wiradjuri people of Australia, highlighted the need for all indigenous peoples to work together and use existing networks to further their cause. “By linking all networks to fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, we can address the needs of the disempowered and dispossessed, and influence our government to take action,” she said.


Suicide and external pressures

The discussion then shifted to a decidedly more disturbing issue: the high rate of suicide among indigenous youth worldwide. Searching for answers, Marcela Tobón Yagarí, representing the Embera Chamí in Colombia, looked to the bigger picture.


 “The increase in suicide and the worsening socio-economic situation are directly related,” she said. “External pressures on territories, extraction of resources and lack of public policy and education are having a traumatic effect on indigenous youth. Young people need to participate in the decision-making and help construct programmes to alleviate the situation.”


Unfortunately, exact statistics on suicide mortality rates among indigenous peoples are imprecise for various reasons – including the remote location of their communities and a lack of political will by authorities to investigate.


Still, it is clearly a major concern, as Indianara Ramires Machado of the Guanarí-Kaiowá in Brazil emphasized. Indianara noted that the suicide rate among indigenous peoples is many times higher than the national rate in her home country, and that suicides disproportionately affect Guanarí adolescents and young adults.


“There needs to be more discussion at both the community and international level to address this issue,” she added.


Support for education

Another key theme of the panel discussion was the critical need to educate the world’s indigenous youth. Crystal Lee, representing the Navajo people of North America, started an online mentoring program for this express purpose.


 “Lack of support off the reservation and cultural conflicts make guidance necessary,” she explained.


Describing her own struggle with these conflicts during her undergraduate studies, Crystal relayed the advice she received from her grandfather: “When I’m gone, all my songs and prayers will remain with you. Stay in school no matter what it takes – you get that degree.”


Awareness and responsibility

Other youth panellists taking part in the discussion included Jocelyn Hung Chien, Chair of the UN Indigenous Youth Caucus, and Naomi Lanoi, representing the Maasai people.


The conversation drew to a close with the understanding that more needs to be done to raise awareness of indigenous issues – and the hope that continued forums such as this one would inspire other young people to join the conversation and take action to protect indigenous rights.


Alancay Morales, representing the Brunka people of Costa Rica, stressed the importance of awareness, along with its consequences. “By raising awareness, we are also raising expectations among the indigenous youth,” he said. “And with that comes a great responsibility to follow through on our ideas with concrete action.”



For more information

Tamar Hahn, thahn@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean


UNICEF is on the ground in over 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.



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