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March 08, 2018 Articles

The Time is Now: Celebrating Indigenous Women on International Women's Day

For years, women’s voices have been silenced or ignored, their stories met with apathy or dismissal. This year’s International Women’s Day theme, “The Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives,” takes women off the mute button and gives them a megaphone with which to share their experiences, capitalizing on the momentum of #MeToo, #AnaKaman, #YoTambien and other campaigns that amplified all women’s voices around the world over the past year.

The U.N.’s particular focus on rural women activists, many of whom live in indigenous communities, acknowledges and celebrates those who are often the most marginalized. Indigenous people make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population but represent over 15 percent of the poorest, reflecting the added burden faced by these communities. Indigenous women must navigate the challenges and dangers of environmental destruction, displacement, and sexual and gender based violence. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz warned that violence against indigenous defenders had become a worrying global “epidemic." In 2014, 40 percent of environmental defenders murdered were indigenous persons, several of whom were women.  In the last two years alone, there were over 100 cases of violence against indigenous women defenders, targeted because of their work, gender and status as a minority.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we are pausing to celebrate indigenous women who have demonstrated strength and leadership in the face of escalating threats to themselves and their communities.  Below are two profiles of advocates we are privileged to work with through our Justice Defenders Program.

Rani Yan Yan (Queen Yan Yan), Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh


“In Bangladesh, women are disadvantaged compared to men. Indigenous women are further marginalised than Bengali women, thus making indigenous women the most disadvantaged group in the country.”—Rani Yan Yan


Rani Yan Yan is the Queen of the Chakma Circle community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), an indigenous community, with nominal autonomy in the southeastern region of Bangladesh. As Rani, or Queen, Yan Yan has petitioned the elders to appoint more women to positions of power that deal with traditional laws to ensure that women’s rights are respected and adhered to in the traditional system. She regularly draws attention to the widespread violence against indigenous women, raising concerns to various national, regional and international stakeholders, including the UN.

On February 15, credible reports allege Rani Yan Yan was brutally beaten by security forces while protecting and supporting two young indigenous girls, sisters who were allegedly raped and assaulted by security forces.  The two were reportedly unlawfully confined to a hospital between January 24 and February 15, where they were not treated for medical purposes, denied access to a lawyer, and placed under strict surveillance by the security forces.

Speaking at a Solidarity Assembly days after her reported assault, Rani Yan Yan demanded justice for the sisters and advocated for the rights of all indigenous persons, especially women, in Bangladesh. We applaud her courage amid increasing threats against indigenous women defenders in the CHT and echo her call on the Government of Bangladesh to respect its commitment to human rights by conducting an unbiased investigation, bringing the perpetrators to justice through a fair and public trial, and protecting indigenous women from similar attacks moving forward. 


Tweet your support for Rani Yan Yan: #WHRD and #indigenous rights defender Rani Yan Yan was attacked for protecting teenage rape victims. Her courage should be rewarded, not punished. #Bangladesh should protect indigenous women from similar attacks. The #TimeIsNow #IWD2018 @JusticeDefend


Las Mujeres de La Puya, San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, Guatemala

On March 5th, members of the non-violent Resistencia Pacífica La Puya (Peaceful Resistance of La Puya), celebrated six years of maintaining a 24- hour post to protest the health and environmental risks associated with the Progreso VII Derivada gold mine. Enduring threats, smear campaigns and the near fatal shooting of the leader of their movement, Yolanda Oquelí, the women of La Puya have laid their lives on the line, going so far as to lie on the road and create human chains to prevent mining machinery from entering the perimeters of their ancestral lands.

 In 2012, the Guatemalan Government failed to consult the indigenous communities of the San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc municipalities before awarding mining licenses to a gold mining project. In doing so, the government violated national and international laws that require companies to consult with local communities before authorizing the extraction of natural resources.

Fed up with the government’s inaction in addressing her community’s concerns, local activist, Estela Reyes, parked her car in the middle of the road and forced the excavator to retreat from Progreso VII Derivada. One small act of resistance created an ongoing local movement, birthed and led by women, to defend their communities’ traditional land and resources from unlawful mining excavations.

With the support of human rights organizations, the community achieved a legal victory in 2016 when Guatemala’s Constitutional Court suspended the operations of Progreso VII Derivada. Ana Sandoval, one of the youngest leaders of the movement, is now attending law school, in order to gain the legal skills necessary to prevent further environmental and indigenous exploitation. “As a lawyer, I can help the movement, and not only in the case of La Puya. Because this is not a fight that is going to end any time soon. There are more than 20 mining projects planned for the region.”  The ABA Center for Human Rights will continue to support the efforts of indigenous communities and their leaders, including thousands of brave women around the world, demanding justice and respect for the rule of law.

Tweet your support for the Women of La Puya Resistance:

On #IWD2018 support #indigenous women's rights defenders in #Guatemala who are protecting their traditional lands from unlawful mining. They are La Puya Resistance and their #TimeIsNow @JusticeDefend

En Español: Defensoras ambiental de #Guatemala, de Resistencia Pacífica La Puya. Luchan contra el proyecto de oro “El Tambor”. Pese a las violencias físicas y sexuales, ellas siguen clamando justicia! #TejiendoCuerposTerritorios #TimeIsNow #IWD2018 @JusticeDefend

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