The Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund provides small grants for
grassroots projects that empower women and girls in developing countries.

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VGIF UN BLOG   8.15.2014

Moving Forward to Empower Indigenous People

By Arielle Thomas

My last event this summer was a special event for the “International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” held at the United Nations on Friday, August 8th. With the multi-colored attire, the starting horn call, and introductory song, this event was unlike anything I previously attended through my internship. It felt as if there was an underlying unity among the attendees and panelists around the need to acknowledge the rights of indigenous people.

The event began with remarks from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who stated we must “forge a new vision for sustainable development and form the ground work for the adoption of a legal agreement,” which would ultimately benefit indigenous people. He continued saying countries that do not recognize their rights are allowing the lives and rights of indigenous people to be threatened. Ki-Moon’s speech concluded, “let us work even harder to empower and support their aspirations.”

I found the remarks by President of the General Assembly, John Ashe, to be quite interesting. He emphasized the importance in bridging the gap between the underlying principles of the United Nations and the reality of its implementation. He continued, stating, “The marginalization of indigenous people is still an unfortunate reality.” Mr. Ashe, however, is optimistic of the future and discussed how the upcoming first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples will provide a foundation to share different perspectives and practices regarding the rights of indigenous people.

Recognizing the rights of indigenous people is of paramount importance; however, there is a parallel need for them to gain skills to overcome present obstacles that arise from their lack of recognition. At VGIF, we have funded several projects that aim to empower and educate indigenous populations. One such project, Madre, was based in Nicaragua where as many as 80% of indigenous people lack access to clean drinking water which often results in waterborne illnesses, a leading cause of death, particularly for children. Women and girls are responsible for the provision of clean water to households and for maintaining water ecosystems in indigenous cultures. Madre worked with the community to promote sustainable clean water, reduce litter at water sources through cleanup days and provided public education. This project shows how indigenous women and girls access creative solutions to overcome existing barriers while they await official recognition and access to necessary rights like healthcare and clean water.

Speaker Wu Hongbo stated, “Gaps remain between actions and words.” There are more than 370 million indigenous people around the world and the fact that a majority of their rights are being overlooked and not acknowledged is a moral and legal unfairness. The upcoming World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is evidence that a universal dialogue will soon begin, and that is the most important step to ending this inequality and creating a stronger unity among humankind.

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