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  HOME | Central America

Plight of Panama Indians Could Change with More Women Leaders

PANAMA CITY – The poverty-stricken lot of Indian settlements in Panama could change if more women rose to power, because they have a less egocentric vision of the world and more concerned about the unity of their communities, according to one of the country’s indigenous leaders.

The president of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Women of Panama (Conamuip), Sonia Henriquez, told EFE in an interview that the problem with Indian leaders nowadays is that they concentrate on their own individual interests and forget about their communities.

In contrast, the women are used to caring for their families and because of that, according to Henriquez, they have developed “more sensitivity, unity, collectivity and solidarity.”

They are also “better at preserving their ancestral culture,” which is crucial these days when Indians are pretty much forced to migrate from their regions to the cities and constantly mingle with other cultures.

She herself was taken from her native island at age 7. Her parents were extremely poor and gave her up for adoption to a family of her own ethnicity who lived in the capital – and who had scarcely any trace of their indigenous culture left.

When she returned years later to Sasardi Muladub, one of the 365 paradisiacal San Blas Islands of Panama, she realized she was unable to communicate with her biological parents because she had forgotten the Kuna language. She felt the need to recover her roots and decided to stay.

“Women are the best guardians of the world view of our people, of our handicrafts, our language, our beliefs and our gastronomy,” she said during the inauguration of an expo about Indian leaders presented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in which Henriquez took part as a model.

Close to 400,000 Indians live in Panama, about 11 percent of the population, and are grouped in seven principal ethnicities: Embera, Wounaan, Kuna, Ngabe, Bugle, Naso and Bri-Bri.

Though Panama has led the region in economic growth in recent years, the country suffers from great inequalities that chiefly affect the indigenous peoples.

According to the latest Living Standards Measurement Study taken by the World Bank in 2008, 96.7 percent of Indians who live in the country’s 12 indigenous territories are poor, while 72 percent of their boys and girls under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.

But women are those who lend a helping hand.

“On my island there are several youths who have gone to college because their mothers began selling ‘molas’ (the traditional Kuna textile) to tourists. The economic independence of the women changes the lives of Indian families,” Henriquez said.


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