Indigenous peoples in Latin America improve political participation, but women lag behind, says UNDP

May 22, 2013

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are approximately 50 million indigenous peoples, about 10% of the total population. Photo: UNDP Peru

New York - Latin America has gone through an unprecedented mobilization of indigenous peoples in the past 20 years, but their political participation, particularly among women, is still low, according to a new study released today by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) during the 12th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in New York.

The report 'Intercultural Citizenship—Contributions from the political participation of indigenous peoples in Latin America' (available in Spanish) examines the region’s six countries with highest percentage of indigenous peoples and greatest progress in political participation: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.

According to the new study, some key factors have helped boost indigenous peoples political participation in the region, especially: i) an increased number of indigenous movements, which also benefitted from communications technology, including mobile phones, the Internet and social media, ii) the expansion of their rights after countries signed and recognized crucial international conventions and iii) an increased number of government agencies advocating for indigenous issues.

The study highlights that indigenous women’s political inclusion has been a major challenge, since they face "triple discrimination": being female, indigenous and poor. Beyond women’s usual difficulties in breaking the political glass ceiling, especially in developing countries, indigenous customary law further hinders women’s political participation in the region. Even though women have the right to vote and several countries in the region have put in place quotas for women participation in political parties and public offices, indigenous women’s political participation—along with their sexual and reproductive health—are crucial issues that still lag behind, the report stresses.

The report maps the indigenous peoples’ participation in parliament and shows that:

  • Among Mexico’s 500 lower house representatives,14 are indigenous and four of them are women (2012-2015)
  • In Guatemala there are 158 seats in parliament, 19 are taken by indigenous peoples, three of them are women (2012-2016)
  • In Nicaragua of the total 92 deputies in the National Assembly during 2006-2009, three were indigenous peoples and two of them were women
  • Among Ecuador’s 124 MPs, seven are indigenous peoples, two of them are women (2009-2013)
  • In Peru, there are 130 parliamentarians and only nine are indigenous peoples, two of them are women (2011-2016)
  • In Bolivia, where indigenous peoples are the majority of the population, of the 130 MPs 41 are indigenous, but only nine of them are women.

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are approximately 50 million indigenous peoples, about 10% of the total population. However, in two countries, Peru and Guatemala, indigenous peoples encompass almost half of the population, and in Bolivia, they are over 60% of the total population. Even though in Mexico indigenous peoples cover only 10% of the total population, Mexico and Peru contain the largest indigenous population in the region: about 11 million people.

"Beyond cultural barriers, indigenous peoples own little, often unproductive land, and live below the poverty line, which hinder their political inclusion," highlights Gerardo Noto, UNDP Democratic Governance Coordinator for in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Poverty levels among indigenous peoples have hardly changed, despite Latin America’s immense achievements in poverty reduction in recent decades, the report says. "The white-mestizo population has benefited, but not the indigenous peoples, as if they lived in a world secluded from the most positive aspects of development," stressed the report, written mainly by indigenous leaders and experts.

"In recent decades, we have been protagonists of important legal, political and cultural changes which have only started to invert the historic exclusion which our people have been exposed to,” states Mirna Cunningham, of the Miskita poeoples of Nicaragua, who was ex-president and a current expert with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. "But the challenges we continue to face demand continuous commitment and political will."


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