It should be a no-brainer, but it bears repeating nonetheless: As half the human population, women are essential to the planet’s survival.
This was the common message underlying the day’s theme, “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,” as outlined by the United Nations, which declared International Women’s Day in 1909. And that was echoed in statements from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), to President Barack Obama. Though neither Ki-moon nor Obama invoked indigenous women specifically, the conditions described in statements from each official fall disproportionately onto Native women’s shoulders.
“In poor parts of the world today, women still risk death in the process of giving life,” said Ki-moon in a statement. “Maternal mortality is one of many preventable perils. All too often, female babies are subjected to genital mutilation. Girls are attacked on their way to school. Women’s bodies are used as battlefields in wars. Widows are shunned and impoverished. We can only address these problems by empowering women as agents of change.”
Without women, “economies would collapse, communities would fail, and families would fall apart,” Obama said in a statement. “And yet, in too many places around the world, women still struggle to rise out of their status as second-class citizens.”
“Indigenous women are the epitome of strength and resilience,” said NWAC President Dawn Lavell-Harvard. “Our women are leaders, life givers, caregivers, healers, decision-makers, and the very heartbeat and lifeblood of our communities. Without our women, there would be no community at all. Today and every day, I encourage both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike to give thanks to the women in their lives for all that they do for us.”
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) pointed out the ways that indigenous women in Canada have been denied parity by the Indian Act and other colonial practices.
“As the struggle for women’s rights was taking place in mainstream society and gains were being made, indigenous women were stripped of their roles as leaders and matriarchs in our homes through federal policy and the Indian Act,” said FSIN Vice Chief Heather Bear in a statement.
Under the Indian Act, First Nations women were denied voting rights in their own band elections until 1950, the FSIN explained. Full suffrage in Canadian elections was granted to First Nations women and men alike in 1960, but the Indian Act was used to strip women of their Native status. Boarding schools exacerbated that by further destroying family structures.
“The sanctity of the family unit was damaged so severely the effects are still being felt today in many families and communities,” the FSIN said. “Canadian laws and policies still exist that undermine Indigenous women’s fundamental human rights.”
“First Nations women have fallen victim to the Indian Act in so many ways and in so many spheres,” said Bear. “Historically indigenous women were honored for their insight, wisdom and leadership. We were keepers of the laws, traditions and cultures. Today in Canada, indigenous women are seven times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women, and the incarceration of indigenous women has increased by 112 percent over the past decade. International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on the root causes that have led us to where we are today in the hope that awareness will create understanding and understanding will create change in society.”
In the United States, groups advocating for Native women are drawing attention to similar issues of missing and murdered indigenous women below the 49th Parallel. They are pressuring the federal government to increase funding for linking communication between tribal, federal and state law enforcement, so as to investigate disappearances and crimes more thoroughly. This was brought out at a recent congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. that took stock of the implementation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2013.
“It is now clear that the law should be expanded to protect additional victims and tribes across the Nation should be provided with the proper resources to implement the law,” said Peter Yucupicio, Pascua Yaqui Chairman, in a statement from the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center before the February 23 hearing. “Imagine if all tribes, including Alaskan Native communities had implemented VAWA 2013, thousands of additional victims would have been protected.”
The Assembly of First Nations and the Chiefs of Ontario were among the other indigenous organizations calling attention to Native women on this day, both to the continuing problems of violence against indigenous women, and the progress that has been made.
“As First Peoples, we believe that a community cannot be healthy if its women are not supported and loved—strong women lead to strong families, communities, and nations,” said Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) in a statement. “We have come a long way in terms of equality and respect over the years, in fact, Ontario now has 38 elected women chiefs serving. But there are still many hurdles to overcome.”