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Lockdown measures and restrictive policies in the wake of COVID-19 have led to shrinkage of livelihood options for indigenous women and severely affected household food security. Restrictions have prevented Indigenous women in Asia from gathering traditional medicines and foods.

By Pragyaa Rai, Richa Pradhan and Pradeep Baisakh

There are approximately 410 million indigenous people in the world. They, together account for about 5 per cent of the global population. There are 260 million indigenous people in Asia, with 2,000 distinct civilizations and languages. The majority of indigenous peoples in Asia have experienced historical suppression, marginalization, socio-economic and political discrimination.

In some cases, the indigenous people lack legal or constitutional recognition. Indigenous people are generally poor and constitute majority section of the informal work force. Existing policies limits their access to social protection benefits and deny them full and effective participation in society. Their rights as indigenous peoples are repeatedly violated and there is hardly any respect to their collectivism, self-governance, identities and culture. Incursions into their lands in most Asian nations in the name of ‘development’ have expelled them from their ancestral lands and territories and deprived them of their resources.

COVID-19 exacerbates vulnerabilities

The onset of COVID-19 has reinforced the existing inequalities and marginalisation of indigenous peoples, with most negative impacts felt by indigenous women and girls, persons with disabilities and older people.

The vulnerability of indigenous communities to COVID-19 has been exacerbated by their limited access to health services and information regarding the virus and relief packages. It has been further aggravated by restrictions on mobility, lack of transportation and testing services and failure to provide information in their native languages. Indigenous women migrant workers have fared worst of all, losing their jobs. They also experienced violence and torture. Indigenous women and children in some Asian countries could not access social protection assistance and relief packages because they did not have the required legal documentation.

Despite the spread of the virus, development projects and military operations have continued in the Philippines, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, with severe negative consequences for indigenous communities including women.

Land grabbing of indigenous territories by development projects continued during lockdown. Human rights of indigenous leaders and women were violated through vilification, illegal arrest, detention, killings and sexual assaults. Attacks by State forces on indigenous human right defenders, among whom there are many indigenous women, were reported during the lockdowns.

Northeast Indian women in particular have experienced ethnicity-based discrimination and stigmatisation during COVID-19 because they have central Asian features. Indigenous women with disabilities also faced the additional risk of abuse and violence from their own family members and care takers during the lockdowns and shutdowns.

Need to amend continued exclusion

Official COVID-19 containment and humanitarian packages across Asia excluded indigenous people in general and had a particularly harsh impact on indigenous persons with disabilities.

Lockdown measures and restrictive policies led to shrinkage of the livelihood options and severely affected food security of indigenous people and communities. Restrictions have prevented Indigenous women in Asia from gathering traditional medicines and foods. The deployment of military personnel in the indigenous territories has prevented them from harvesting food crops and, even when they have had something to sell, they have had to throw it away because there are no buyers for their produce.

The governments and development partners need to focus on addressing these gaps by adopting inclusive recovery policies and programmes that prioritise the needs of the indigenous communities, including the women and person with disabilities.

To begin with, gathering disaggregated data should be initiated and made publicly available to permit monitoring of access to basic health services and recovery packages. Indigenous women’s knowledge of herbal remedies and traditional foodstuffs should be valued and encouraged to create their livelihood opportunities. Special priority attention should be given to the health and needs of women and persons with disabilities, especially in conflict zones and militarised regions.

The piece has been sourced from GCAP’s “Global Report on Leave No Woman Behind” published in 2021.

Pragyaa Rai and Richa Pradhan work with Asia Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP) and Network of Indigenous Women in Asia (NIWA) and Pradeep Baisakh is associated with Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP). (Email id: )