The importance of decent work for indigenous women in rural areas: Joint NORWAY-ILO side event at 56th Session of the CSW

On 2 March 2012, over 70 delegates from governments, UN entities, employers, workers and NGOs attended the side event on the importance of decent work for indigenous women in rural areas during the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

The panel, organised by the ILO in cooperation with the Government of Norway was chaired by Mr Fredrik Arthur, Ambassador for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Norway. A dynamic panel of indigenous women speakers involved in politics, law, private business and indigenous women’s organisations from Norway, Australia, Canada and Nicaragua described how their people were addressing the gender and social pressures on their communities as they strived to provide jobs and economic opportunities on native lands.

Ms Vibeke Larsen, a member of the board of the Sami Parliament highlighted the fact that the Parliament, which consisted of 51% men and 49% women, worked to ensure equal treatment and opportunity for the Sami. While Norway was a wealthy country and people’s social needs were largely met, challenges persisted for gender equality for the indigenous people. Within the Sami community traditional roles had not changed with women still working in occupations that were not valued equally as men’s occupations, resulting in a pay gap. And this occurred despite the fact that women achieved better education results (2% higher than the national average). She described efforts to counteract the trend of young educated Sami women leaving their rural communities to live and work in urban areas, such as ensuring that the rural jobs were perceived to be attractive for young women and their return was valued by the remote communities. Measures included supporting them in finding jobs, training them to start their own enterprises, assisting women in small business to access finance, providing innovation in schools that equipped the youth to meet employment opportunities. The Norwegian ‘High North’ policy of developing the northern regions was not benefitting Sami women as the jobs on offer were traditional ‘male’ occupations- construction, oil and gas and mining.

Ms Kayleen Rawlings Hunter, a member of the Indigenous Human Rights Network and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance from Australia, presented a case study of resource development in Western Australia to illustrate the problems faced by aboriginal communities in rural areas. While the mining boom was widely seen as an opportunity to provide decent jobs and economic benefits for aboriginal people, Aboriginal women and men in the remote Kimberly region continued to face a range of social issues from high unemployment, poverty, substance abuse, mental instability, youth suicide and crime. Her premise was that the model being developed in Western Australia -with promises of large sums to support local communities in return for licences- was not the solution to these problems. An agreement by oil and gas enterprises with a local aboriginal community to set up onshore gas facilities was threatening the fragile eco-system on aboriginal lands and violating traditional cultural sites. This agreement had caused a rift between the concerned indigenous families and communities, some of whom were strongly opposed to the development and preferred a more sustainable development model which consisted of eco-tourism, leveraging the high international interest in native art and in aboriginal culture. She said the business model of flying staff in for a limited time for work and then flying them out rather than establishing a settled community was not culturally acceptable and would not assist women’s employment prospects. In her opinion, governments and developers should use ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, 1989 (No 169) to develop decent work for rural women.

Ms Lee Anne Cameron, Director First Nations and Metis Relations, Hydro One Networks, from Canada said that Aboriginal rights are protected under the Canadian Constitution and that there are labour laws protecting people of all backgrounds, human rights and equality laws are in place. However, from the point of view of decent work, the reality was different: the income gap between aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada was 30%, and generally the median income for aboriginal people was Canadian $18,000 compared to $27,000 for non-aboriginal people. However, First Nations women earn even more than their non-aboriginal counterpart if they have a university education.Like Norway, Canada had a problem keeping young people on the reserves and attracting them back after they leave their communities to finish high school. The key to addressing this was to provide education at all levels, and for this to happen, an equal share of education funding must be made available for reserves. In Canada friendship centres and other strategies for staying connected helped indigenous students maintain their identity when in urban areas for study. Women played a strong role in indigenous communities with many being leaders, but this needed support, for example the provision of childcare facilities and measures to support care of people with disabilities. Developers of resource projects need to undertake consultation with aboriginal communities before proceeding with major projects. Hydro One had a specific commitment to recruit indigenous people to reflect their numbers in the population; the company had achieved this with 2.5% of employment from the aboriginal community (30 being women). Scholarships were also provided for native peoples. The nature of their operations (transmission and distribution power lines) meant that there were opportunities for local employment, including for women as occupational diversity was encouraged.

Ms Rose Cunningham Kain, Director, Wangki Tangni from Nicaragua was proud that Nicaragua had ratified ILO Convention No 169 in 2010 and that the 2003 legislation gave land title to indigenous land holders. However in order to address hunger in rural areas, there was a need to have the right to food (food sovereignty) and this meant an ongoing guarantee to the right to land. Her community, based around the river frontier with Honduras and traditionally able to shift cultivation across the riverbanks, was faced with shrinking acreage since the neighbouring State had restricted access to those lands while permitting large farming/agro-businesses to take over that land. Moreover cultural restrictions affected women’s rights to economic independence, and women often worked late into the night owing to family responsibilities. Their work was ‘invisible’ and not recognised. Women were also not part of governance structures. Her people nevertheless were active in changing attitudes, for example, by demonstrating that productive activities were not only agricultural but also covered fishing, fruit collection, animal farming, natural medicine and artisanal works: all equally important. Wangki Tangni assisted women-run enterprises to access credit, helped draft policies for indigenous women, and fought tirelessly for self government and autonomy.

Questions and statements from the participants covered the need for indigenous women’s groups to link up with the trade union movement to advocate for rights and legal frameworks and also for unions to reach out to these groups so as to provide knowledge and education of their rights and decent work. There was also a common concern to involve more women in decision making in these organisations. A number of interventions highlighted concerns about the need for an educated youth but the quandary this caused when these youth were forced to leave communities to obtain those higher qualifications and did not return. Several participants commented on the usefulness of Convention No 169 as a framework for rights for indigenous women, and commended the ILO publication (No.1/2012, widely distributed) “Indigenous Women Workers: case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal and the Americas”.

There was also a strong recommendation that participants look at the resolution being promoted at the CSW on Indigenous peoples and participants were encouraged to suggest amendments to address the key areas being discussed in the side event.

In response speakers said that the key to getting young people back was to ensure that there was work available in rural areas to match the education and skills they had, this was especially for young women. In urban areas the communities needed to provide cultural support, language skills to their people who had migrated to the cities. It was also felt that Convention no. 189 needed to be better promoted and applied as framework for policy development, for instance if the people of Honduras knew more about the convention there might be a better opportunity to address the land pressures on the indigenous population and develop new laws. All speakers agreed that the CSW resolution needed attention as whether indigenous of non indigenous, all women needed more rights.

Relevant ILO documents were distributed, including the newly published working paper on Indigenous women workers with case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal and the Americas; a guide to Convention 111 on discrimination in employment and occupation and copies of ILO Convention 189.