"Are you going to sing and dance?" asked an inquisitive journalist to a group of indigenous women from Latin America.
They looked at him with fury and snapped: "We do not sing and we do not dance."
Tarcila Rivera, a Peruvian indigenous woman of Quechua origin, explains: "We are of flesh and bone, like everybody else. We are not exotic and are much more than our traditional costumes.
We have economic, political, cultural, gender problems, like all the women attending this Forum, she adds. We want to participate in politics, have a voice at the UN, use a computer."
Indigenous women are annoyed that in the NGO Forum's program the plight of indigenous women is subsumed within ethnicity and culture.
And no wonder. They have come to Beijing with a serious platform which has a lot in common with the demands of rural women, only that they suffer a double discrimination: as women and as indigenous people.
Despite having made great strides in terms of organization and coordination at continental level, Latin America's indigenous women still feel marginalized and not understood by their Latin American sisters.
They were disappointed, for example, at the token role they played during "diversity" workshops and celebrations in the Latin American and Caribbean tent.
There are 40 million indigenous people in the part of the Americas that stretches from Mexico to Cape Horn in Chile, with 59% of the women living in rural areas. Four fifths of illiterate peasants are women of indigenous origin Rural illiteracy is 5 t o 10 times higher than in the cities,
Although they share common problems with non-indigenous women, such as lower pay than men and being powerless in their own organizations, indigenous women have additional problems such as racial and cultural discrimination.
"When we go to a government office, to the hospital they treat us like dirt," says Rivera. "What we demand is mutual respect."
In preparation for Beijing, Latin America's indigenous women met in Ecuador and then in Argentina where they prepared a draft platform which they are now finalizing at the Forum.
Their demands include bilingual and intercultural education in their indigenous language as well as in Spanish. They want titles and protection of the lands where they live
"We cannot develop our culture, our life if we do not have the land that gives us life," Rivera explains.
Instead, the protection traditionally afforded in several Latin American countries to indigenous territories is being dismantled by new laws allowing indigenous lands to be sold.
Indigenous women are also asking for participation in educational and research programs that affect or concern them. They want credit and reward for their traditional knowledge (of traditional plants, for example) as well as international and national po licies that benefit them while respecting their identity. Of the United Nations they ask that an equal number of men and women is invited to attend workshops and meetings.
Finally, they say governments should ratify the International Labor Office's (ILO) resolution 169 on the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous people.
As for the future, Latin America's indigenous women are working on establishing a permanent continental network for training and exchange of experiences.
"We also want to understand the problems of indigenous women from other regions and join in a word wide network that will strengthen us all," Rivera says.
They have moved so far so fast in the last few years that it is perfectly possible that Rivera's dream of a web of indigenous people acting and interacting with each other will be a reality before the next world conference on women.
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