Higher maternal and infant mortality rates, poorer access to health services, increased vulnerability to contract HIV/AIDS and to being subjected to sexual violence and discrimination – this is part of the stark reality facing many of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples. In its continuous efforts to promote the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples worldwide, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is working to change this.
On 15-17 January, the Permanent Forum arranged the first international expert group meeting on the topic of sexual and reproductive health and rights of indigenous peoples, gathering seven experts from all corners of the world. Aimed at analyzing how the UN system, member states as well as indigenous peoples and their organizations can be more responsive within this area, the meeting also represented an opportunity for knowledge-exchange.
“Reproductive health is an important issue. It is about the survival and well-being of our families, our cultures and communities, our peoples”
Assistant Secretary-General in UN DESA
“Reproductive health is an important issue. It is about the survival and well-being of our families, our cultures and communities, our peoples. It is not just about an absence of illness or disease,” said Thomas Gass, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in UN DESA, as he opened the meeting.
Mr. Gass pointed to the fact that indigenous peoples often face poor access to healthcare and that a majority of them are still not fully included in the economic, political and social life of the country in which they live. “If we are to address this unacceptable gap between our aspirations and the reality on the ground, we must redouble our efforts to ensure closer collaboration between the UN system, Member States and indigenous peoples,” he said.
High rates of sexually transmitted infections
One of the experts at the meeting was Dr. Clive Aspin, a Māori and independent public health consultant with extensive experience from public health research and with a special expertise on the impact of HIV on indigenous populations.
“The major challenge that we all face around the world is the high rates of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) within indigenous communities,” Dr. Aspin said, pointing to the challenges of how HIV and STI disparities are addressed.
”That’s going to be a challenge for health services, […] for governments and […] for indigenous communities,” he said, underscoring the need for sufficient means to solve these issues. “Hopefully, governments will come on board and provide us with the sorts of resources that we need to get on top of the problem,” Dr. Aspin added.
Addressing taboos and other challenges
Dr. Mirna Cunningham Kain, an indigenous Miskita woman from Nicaragua and former member and chair of the Forum also attended the meeting as one of the experts. She described two types of challenges, relating to the organization of sexual health and reproductive programs and to internal challenges. “We have gained a lot in the recognition of the indigenous peoples in Latin America, and in some of our communities […] we have gained autonomy,” she said, describing that the communities themselves are now to decide on how to organize health services. “At the same time, we face internal challenges and national challenges, because in some of our communities sexuality is not addressed, […] it is seen as something that you should not talk about,” Dr. Cunningham Kain added.
“We are very clear that we need to organize an intercultural approach in the organization of the health care system”
Mirna Cunningham Kain
Former Member and Chair of the Permanent Forum
She also talked about the concern over high rates of maternal mortality among indigenous women. “So on one side, we have gained rights, on the other side we are very clear that we need to organize an intercultural approach in the organization of the health care system,” Dr. Cunningham Kain said, pointing to traditional barriers affecting the way in which services are organized.
Youth leading the way
Jessica Danforth, founder and Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, also participated as one of the experts, bringing the youth perspective from North America into the discussion. “We are very excited that this meeting is happening,” she said, describing some of the challenges that indigenous youth face, including racism, poverty and lack of access to support and resources. “We are here to say that we are not just recognizing that those [challenges] are happening, we want to do something about it,” Ms. Danforth said, adding that their hope is that the meeting will ultimately result in social and systemic change.
She also described the important role that indigenous youth play in making change happen. “As indigenous peoples, we are often faced with one-size fits all models for let’s say sex education or reproductive health services. And one size does not fit all,” Ms. Danforth emphasized. “The importance of centering our language, our traditions and things that make sense to us, are so integral to achieving our full wellness and well-being,” she added.
Dr. Aspin, Dr. Cunningham Kain and Ms. Danforth all expressed hopes that this meeting will help in bringing about change, advancing indigenous people’s sexual reproductive health and rights worldwide.
“If we can really include this in the global agenda, then we have an opportunity because that will give us a tool to go back to our country, to go back to our communities and say – see we have this support from the international standards,” Mirna Cunningham Kain said.
For more information:
Listen to UN Radio interviews with participants at this Expert Group Meeting: