LIMA – Impoverished Native American women who already were experiencing gender, racial and class discrimination have seen their struggles amplified by the coronavirus, which poses a new threat to a population that has long faced various forms of violence.
From the Inuit women of the Arctic region of Canada to female Mapuches in south-central Chile, the three-pronged discrimination suffered by indigenous women across the Americas worsened as the pandemic took hold in the region, which now has registered more than 4.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 233,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
Indigenous females in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, a population that numbers more than 25 million, have found themselves even more unprotected and vulnerable as a result of the different countries’ social-distancing measures and disease-prevention protocols, which have been adopted without regard for the customs and traditions of these communities.
Unemployed and confined to their homes, these women have seen their economic plight exacerbated by the pandemic even as they have been left even more exposed to domestic violence by their husbands or partners.
Amid the crisis, these women also have had more difficulty accessing health care and other basic services and often been unable to denounce the aggressions they have faced.
“That’s why we use the term violences in plural,” Peru’s Tarcila Rivera, who is the coordinator of the Continental Network of Indigenous Women (ECMIA) – which comprises more than 30 organizations in 23 countries – and until last year was a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told EFE.
“We continue to face the problems of domestic and sexual violence and racism, which for us is a form of tremendous violence that damages our self-esteem,” said Rivera, who also is the founder and vice president of the Center for Indigenous People’s Cultures of Peru (Chirapaq).
The pandemic also in many cases has meant sudden economic destitution, with thousands of indigenous women who had emigrated to the cities in search of opportunities finding themselves helplessly confined to their homes.
Unable to go outside and earn an income, hundreds of native people in Peru were forced to travel on foot from Lima to their places of origin in the southern Andes and the Amazon region – a trek of hundreds of kilometers (miles).
“It’s terrible that single women who had three or four children and were living in overcrowded conditions thinking they’d have more opportunities in the city have had to return on foot with their children. During that journey, they’re also exposed to other types of danger, such as sexual violence,” Rivera said.
“We’ve seen how this pandemic has really laid bare the guise that had previously existed. It was said that Peru was a country of opportunities, but they were opportunities … for the people who come from abroad or for one sector of the country, but not for the whole population,” she added.
In the northern Argentine province of Chaco, hardly a day goes by without Elizabeth Carrasco receiving a call on her cellphone from a Qom woman accusing her partner of domestic violence.
“They call me and I intervene so the authorities can handle the case,” Carrasco, who has witnessed a worrying increase in domestic and family violence in her community during the pandemic, told EFE.
For these indigenous women, this interpreter and expert is their only hope of having their cases taken up by the court system.
“We have many more cases than before the pandemic. Before we used to have between three or four victims a week. Now we might have two or three cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse in a single day,” Carrasco said.
Elsewhere in the Americas, an uproar continues in Colombia over the news that seven soldiers earlier this month gang-raped a 13-year-old indigenous girl in a rural town in the west-central department of Risaralda.
“This was not only an aggression against our girl and her dignity as a human being and member of an ancestral community. It was an aggression against our entire Embera Katio community,” indigenous leader Juan de Dios Queragama said.
ECMIA also condemned the alleged attack by the troops, who have confessed to the crime.
Many rapes of indigenous minors lead to unwanted teen pregnancies.
Paraguayan indigenous activist Gelga Guainer says there have been as many as a score of these cases involving girls aged 11 to 17 in the Guarani and Nivacle communities since the health emergency began.
“They are confined in their communities, and therefore exposed to sexual violence. Neither the traditional authorities nor the state agencies are responding effectively to this situation,” Guainer told EFE.
But not all indigenous people have taken refuge amid the pandemic in rural communities. Many have remained in the city and more than a few are on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus despite lacking adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
That has been the case with a group of indigenous nurses at the Hospital del Indigena in Asuncion’s metropolitan area.
Guainer has brought to light the lack of PPE for indigenous medical personnel, and particularly these nurses, who have been provided just two face masks per week and must re-use them over numerous shifts.
ECMIA has responded by calling on countries across the Americas to ensure adequate protection for indigenous health care workers, as well to facilitate access to clinics for native communities and to distribute information about preventative measures in indigenous languages.
“We’re not just a face to attract attention, to dance or sing. We’re also not just the colors of our clothes or the mountains. Those mountains have living people, resources and wealth,” Rivera said, adding that indigenous people want “full recognition.”