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Indigenous women brave the storm to begin talks at UNCSW

Despite the winter storm that shut down other events at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the event on eradicating violence against indigenous women and girls was packed.

This article is part of our coverage of the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women, New York, March 2017

Snow storm Stella, New York, March 14, 2017. Credit: PA Images / Xinhua

This week, the frigid temperatures and blustery winds of winter storm Stella shut down New York City. On Tuesday, the second day for the 61st Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations Headquarters closed its complex, while most of the planned events were postponed.

But one Mission to the UN stayed open.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Permanent Mission of Canada.  Its staff shrugged off the snow storm, mastered the icy subway steps, and hosted the Commission on the Status of Women’s side event “Empowerment as an instrument to eradicate all forms of violence against indigenous women and girls” in the evening, inviting all the panelists and attendees to its cold-weather-loving, New York location.

This particular event involved a panel of four indigenous women, who spoke about the violence against their communities and presented recommendations to the Commission on the Status of Women. Canada, a country with a history of abuse against its indigenous women, gave the panelists a new venue to continue their work and make their voices heard. Even with the city-wide shut down, the room was packed with a captivated audience.

“This weather, for us, is normal,” said Maryam Monsef, the Minister of the Status of Women for Canada. An audience member responded with a “hear, hear!” while the rest laughed in agreement.

She continued, welcoming member states, civil society organizations, and UN entities, and speaking about the injustices felt by indigenous women in Canada. “As a woman from Afghanistan, a displaced person,” she said, “I have more opportunity in Canada than an indigenous person of the country.”

Indigenous women, worldwide, suffer disproportionately from violence and abuse. Although the priority theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women is the “economic empowerment of women in the changing world of work,” the emerging issue that it is also addressing is the “empowerment of indigenous women” specifically.

A sign referring to the fact that Canada and the US belonged to the Aboriginal peoples before it was taken by settlers at a protest against Trump's 'Muslim Ban' in Toronto, 4 Feb 2017. Credit: NurPhoto / PA Images

Jeanie Dendys, Minister of Tourism and Culture for the Yukon territory and of the Tahltan First Nation, said of the Commission on the Status of Women at yesterday’s panel, “This is a huge platform for us to discuss ending violence against all women.”

Of Canada’s complicated past with indigenous peoples, she continued, “I want to be the minister who says we’ve honoured our indigenous promises.”

Dendys, and other Canadian panelists Sandra Laughren, and Francyne Joe, all commented on Canada’s promising new commitment to indigenous issues. Most notably, last year Canada removed its objector status to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On May 10, 2016, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs declared “We are now a full supporter of the declaration, without qualification.”

Laughren, Senior Policy Analyst for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in Canada, also brought up the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Women and Girls. A 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified at least 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Laughren said that in December, 2015, the Government of Canada launched a national inquiry to seek recommendations to address and prevent the violence against indigenous women and girls.  

Plains Cree artist Ruth Cuthand's 'How Much Was Forgotten'.

The panelists though, made it clear that Canada, and other UN member states, still have a long way to go to address the violence against the world’s indigenous women. Said Cherrah Giles, Secretary of the Department of the Community and Human Services for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, “Violence against women is a pervasive, worldwide human rights violation.” She continued, “The spectrum of violence, from birth to death, destroys our quality of life and our abilities to exercise our human rights.”

Among the recommendations, Dendys and Giles both demanded more data and studies regarding violence against indigenous women. In the United States, for example, a report by National Violence Against Women Survey, found that American Indians were 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault as compared to all other races. The study, however, was conducted in 2000 and has not been updated.

Giles also asked the Commission to intensify its efforts to eliminate violence against indigenous women by adopting a resolution to this regard, and called for an international instrument to address this issue. “These may seem like small demands, but that’s what they are. They are demands,” she said, “We are demanding something to happen, because we felt like nothing has happened yet.”

The storm-weathering audience nodded in agreement to Giles’ requests. Yesterday, the Commission for the Status of Women’s 61st session began again, fresh after a day of closure.  Its meetings over the next 10 days may potentially address these panelists’ concerns in its focus on the empowerment of indigenous women. Assuming, of course, another blizzard doesn’t interrupt the session.

For the Canadians who are unfazed by the snow however, hosting meetings in tough circumstances isn’t enough to make up for its past of indigenous abuse. The future will need to involve increased reporting, funding, and commitment to put an end to the of violence against indigenous women and girls.

“I love Canada. I am so proud to be from this place, and my community,” said Dendys, “But we can do better.” 


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