Trafficking and Indigenous Women
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms that, “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity and liberty and security”. However, as a result of historical injustices such as colonization, genocide, loss of lands and resources, and discriminatory government legislation and policies, Indigenous Peoples have been prevented from fully realizing or exercising all of their human rights. While Indigenous People account for only 5% of the global population, they comprise more than 15% of those living in poverty. Indigenous women standing at the intersection of gender and racial inequality experience multiple layers of discrimination; on the basis of gender, ethnicity, poverty, often being rural, and increasingly as migrants. Around the world indigenous women and girls are disproportionately exposed to acts of violence, sexual violence, trauma, torture and murder. They are overrepresented in the sex trade and are at a higher risk of being trafficked.
In the United States, it wasn’t until 2015 that tribal courts were given allowance to investigate and prosecute non-native men who abuse native women on reservations. Native American women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women. Historically, indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers, including during the Trail of Tears and the Long Walk. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest, ethnic cleansing, and colonization. The legacy of these atrocities continues today through their inter-generational effects, family violence, childhood abuse, poverty, homelessness, lack of basic survival necessities, race and gender-based discrimination, unequal access to education, migration, and substance addictions. In some indigenous communities, these core issues coupled with rural/remote living conditions creates a complex environment that contributes to an increased risk among women and girls in being sexually exploited and trafficked.
A Global Pattern
In Canada, arguably one of the safest countries in the world, at least 1,017 Indigenous women and girls were murdered between 1980 and 2012 making the homicide rate for Indigenous women and girls roughly 7 times higher than for all other women and girls in Canada. Most of the cases involve juveniles and young adults. Just over half of the cases (55%) involve women and girls under the age of 31, with 17% of those women and girls being 18 years of age or younger. And the pattern is repeatedly inflicted on indigenous women around the world. A recent study in New Zealand found that Maori women were significantly more likely than European-ancestry New Zealanders to have been homeless, experienced abuse and to have entered prostitution as children. In Australia suicide is the leading cause of death for indigenous people aged 15 to 35; a staggering 9 times more than the white population.
In Burma, the military regime has been engaged in armed conflict with the various indigenous peoples and used rape as a weapon of war to terrorize their communities. It is estimated that 47% of Burma’s annual income is spent on the military and less than 1% on health and education. Poor indigenous women and their children suffer the most from the lack of these services. Indigenous women’s groups have documented evidence of over 1,000 cases of sexual violence against women by the government troops since 2002. As a result, thousands of indigenous women are displaced inside Burma and its' neighboring countries, where they are stranded on refugee camps or work illegally without access to labor rights.
Double discrimination: the case for support of indigenous women in Thailand
Here in Thailand, the pattern continues. A majority of the women who are trafficked in Thailand are stateless from Burma; many, indigenous women fleeing conflict and ethnic persecution. After the 1980's, the supply of vulnerable girls and women in Thailand shifted to the ethnic minority, local hill tribe populations, who because of deforestation and land use restrictions by the government, are forced to go into the cities to work in order to support their families. Such women face double discrimination. Their lack of education leaves them with few employment opportunities and their legal status poses a barrier to accessing support such as law enforcement.
Historically, indigenous groups in Thailand – the Karen, Akha, Hmong, Lahu and Lisu, among others – have been described as ‘Chao Pa’: the Jungle People. As seen in many other cultures, the word ‘Jungle’ has connotations of wildness and waywardness. This name reflects a widely held belief amongst Thais that the tribes are less than civilized, and hints at the way these groups have been demonized for the growing of opium, slash and burn farming, and the proliferation of communist ideas. More recently, the government has renamed indigenous groups ‘Chao Khao’, Hill People. Although the change of name signified a more benevolent attitude, damaging stereotypes persist. Today, despite the government claim that tribal groups are given equal status, their economic situation does not correlate.
Unemployment rates are far higher in indigenous groups, often partly due to their geographic isolation. When indigenous people are employed, they often suffer from wage discrimination and exploitation. This is a gendered issue, too: the wage gap affects women across the world over and the ability of indigenous women to find gainful employment is therefore doubly limited. At the same time, indigenous peoples’ rights to healthcare and education are rarely fulfilled. Here in Thailand, there are few accessible, affordable healthcare options for tribal communities, while education is conducted in Thai, rather than the indigenous languages. Again, it is women who suffer the most from a lack of healthcare (especially sexual and reproductive health care) and who are more likely to leave school early due to domestic responsibilities.
Traditionally, indigenous peoples have had an intimate relationship with their land, depending on it for food and shelter, as well as for their cultural and spiritual integrity and identity. Today property rights are almost never honored when the landholder is indigenous. Because indigenous populations rarely have formal documentation stating ownership, their land has been systemically seized by corporate or military groups. These land-grabs are not only the cause of significant poverty, but can be particularly harsh on women. Men are more commonly compensated, perhaps with employment, but women, uninformed and undereducated are more likely to end up in low paid and exploitative jobs. Additionally, women face the many and various problems attached to patriarchal power structures that are perpetuated in more traditional tribal groups. Marginalized and often isolated, indigenous groups hang on to a traditional gender binary, which gives women extremely limited scope for leadership, autonomy or self-determination. These cultural norms can be damaging for many women, directly leading to child marriage, sexual violence and domestic abuse within their communities. It is exponentially more difficult for women to seek justice for these abuses, as they face discrimination within both the indigenous and state justice systems.
Though some governments support the development of indigenous peoples, their efforts to do so are often wrong-footed, short-term or culturally insensitive. Indigenous communities rarely have the chance to vocalize their own desires and determine their own futures; women least of all. This voicelessness and lack of autonomy, combined with loss of livelihood have intensified indigenous women's vulnerabilities. Traffickers lure young girls with false promises of employment opportunities praying on their hopes and dreams and filial piety. Indigenous families have little choice but to to send their young girls to big cities to look for work. Many do not return. The attached negative social stigma generates an unwillingness to search for such individuals once they have “disappeared”.
In order to understand trafficking, the effects of racism, in addition to sexism and poverty, must be addressed. Race, class and gender are multiplicative risk factors for sex trafficking. Here in Northern Thailand, we see many of these problems evidenced in the communities around us. The Karen are markedly poorer than rural Thais, and struggle with access to such basic rights as food and clean drinking water, let alone education, healthcare and employment. Instead of being victimized, adversity has created Karen women who are smart, strong, resilient and ready to lead. We believe lasting change can be achieved through empowering and educating women to claim autonomy and determine their own futures. Indigenous women can lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.