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Two decades of Indigenous Women’s leadership in Latin America

FRIDAY FILE - Indigenous women have and continue to play key leadership roles in their communities as well as in international spaces. AWID talked to Otilia Lux de Coti, Executive Director of the Indigenous Women’s Forum (IIWF) about how indigenous women leadership has evolved in the past decades.

In the late 80s, several indigenous women like Nina Pacari Vega and Blanca Chancoso (Ecuador), Rigoberta Menchú and Rosalina Tuyuc (Guatemala), and Tarcila Rivera Zea (1)(Peru), led the movement that was emerging as part of the 1992 commemoration of 500 years of Columbus’ arrival on the American continent. The 500-year anniversary was the unifying factor for indigenous people that prompted them to reflect and take action. Also many sectors like unions, the left wing parties, women and youth joined the indigenous movement in making statements and mobilizing for Rigoberta Menchú to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

In 1991 a second meeting of the campaign 500 Years of Indigenous and Popular Resistance took place in Guatemala, and it included the emergent movement of Afro-descendants. The Mexico and Ecuador Indigenous meetings and summits followed suit. According to Lux de Coti, these women were involved in all these spaces and they started on a very interesting path, while at the UN level they began to promote and organize activities for the IV Women’s Conference in Beijing.

AWID: What factors contributed to empowering indigenous women so they could become leaders?

Otilia Lux de Coti (OLC): There were several elements that contributed to their leadership. In the 80s the Cold War prompted women to participate and mobilize within peasant and indigenous organizations. In the case of Rigoberta and other women leaders, they had been left activists. This kind of political work makes women empower themselves and become important leaders.

Different institutions devoted themselves to create social promoters, providing activities for economic growth and also for political participation. Through the social arm of the Catholic Church there were several programs promoting women’s participation. Political parties of a Christian Social nature (that was how they were named) also promoted a lot of youth participation, calling people to participate to help communities from a communal perspective. For instance, in Guatemala we had women leaders in the communities but between 1981 and 1983 the war practically froze leadership. Some who were potential leaders took paths that led them away from their communities, while others were not able to leave and became victims of that situation. However, we challenged the situation and developed a political activism that was “underground”, as we were doing it under the label of “women moving towards development”. Even when surrounded by military forces trying to control us, we spoke of development, economic issues around production and participation. But our purpose was to gather together again so we could continue moving forward with the movement that we had begun years before and that was restricted by the war.

Otilia Lux de Coti, CIM Hemispheric Forum Women and Democracy, 2013

Another important factor for women, as a starting point in their leadership, is to have a role model in the family; it could be the mother or grandmother, who contributes to shaping the woman leader’s character. Education is also important and if the woman is able to go to school, some schools encourage and provide opportunities for students to organize themselves under self-rule schemes, training girls, adolescents and women to keep the spirit of participation alive. This is the starting point in political participation. Later there are political training schools like the one International Indigenous Women´s Forum (IIWF) has, which provides certification programs that foster leadership.

Several young women are being trained on political leadership and in FIMI we have seen twenty indigenous women develop their skills and now they are qualified in statistics, which is very important for advocacy in the national census or to create institutions that are able to disaggregate data for example.

AWID: How have indigenous women built their leadership in their communities?

OLC: There are different ways for women to assert their leadership. One way, is by being the authority of an organization, for instance the indigenous mayors, even though in some cases they are not recognized by the State. In Mayan institutionalism, when a woman is elected, it is because she has proven herself capable, and also because she has served and helped the community and is always active . There are women who submit community projects to State bodies, championing them and doing political events together with other women from the community.

Another type of leadership occurs in the field of health with women who have been trained to become indigenous healers as well as midwives. Another is that of women producers, because economic empowerment is important to highlight, so that women have opportunities to increase production, as in the case of vegetable and flower production. This can be seen in Ecuadorean and Bolivian markets where many women leaders practice “buen vivir”, something they have learned in their families since they were children.

AWID: What obstacles do indigenous women face in participating in decision-making spaces?

OLC: Violence, patriarchy and racism are the main obstacles. That machismo you see for instance in almost all the men involved in political parties, who do not allow women to enter those spaces in which they could be elected. In addition to that, the political system blocks women’s political participation, we need an electoral law that includes quotas and political party reform. But in the case of indigenous populations, this is quite hard. In countries with an indigenous majority they are asking for real parity and equality so there is an indigenous and a mestiza woman and a mestizo and indigenous man.

Violence and threats stop many women from political proselytizing. It stops them from doing many things for their own development and the lack of funding also limits women’s participation.

AWID: How is leadership understood and lived across generations?

OLC: We look at young women with a lot of admiration and young women see us as their female ancestors. They see us as role models and teachers. They have witnessed us participating at the United Nations (UN), becoming ministers and members of parliament and they want to the same, and they ask us how they can do this. We respond by saying that first, they need to participate in women’s and people’s organizations because that is where you cut your political teeth and where you learn how to communicate, how to participate in the community, how to do advocacy, how to negotiate. Young women see a big bridge between them and us. Our goal as adult women is to do intergenerational work with young women.

AWID: Is it right to say that young women bring about a new type of leadership?

OLC: Yes, today women can assert their leadership more freely, they don’t have the huge restrictions we had during the Cold War. I believe the leadership of today’s young women is one with larger opportunities and some organizations are making it easier for them to access training and education. Every year we see many young women attending the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Geneva Human Rights Fora. In Honduras and Nicaragua, young women have come together to create their own organizations and they work on issues like violence against women, sexual and reproductive health, political participation, the role of youth, governance, women’s and indigenous peoples’ rights. At Rio+20, we saw young women working hard and asserting their leadership, they give us hope and we must continue to support them.


1) Tarcila Rivera Zea, was elected as a UN Women consultant in May 2012