Submission to the UNSRIP on Indigenous Women in Asia and COVID-19 Pandemic

3 July 2020, 7:50 am Written by  Eleanor Dictaan-Bang-oa (AIWN Secretariat)
Published in Latest News
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Most states in Asia are at classified at medium risk based on the COVID-19 Risk Indexof the UN Office of the Commissioner on Human Rights. Classified as high risk countries are Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh based on several factors like hazard and exposure, inequality, aid dependency, socio-economic vulnerability, health conditions, food security and gender-based violence among others. This report is particular on indigenous women where the Asia Indigenous Women’s Network  and Tebtebba  have  partners providing information based on their experiences and observations  from working closely with indigenous women and their communities on the ground. Inputs come from Nepal, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines.

Indigenous peoples make up 75% of Asia’s population but are not reflected in most statistics including in the COVID – 19 monitoring by states. State reports to the public only contain age, sex, place of residence and history of travel of COVID 19 patients.

Indigenous peoples in Asia are generally unrecognized except in some countries where there are varying degrees of recognition i.e. Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Japan among others. Nonetheless, recognition by law is far different from effective and actual practice on the ground. In this context, indigenous women have preexisting and persistent vulnerabilities due to their history of discrimination as indigenous peoples, as women and as part of the poor sector of the society. This has put them in a generally marginalized situation even before the pandemic.

This lack of recognition reflects on the level of documentation of indigenous peoples in some countries in the region. In Thailand, while the national ID system is in place, there are still a large number of indigenous peoples, most women and children, who are not documented due to problems of access and inefficient reach out. Without a national identity card, they cannot access basic state services, including relief services in this pandemic. In the Philippines, some indigenous women and young mothers, were not accounted for in a local relief initiative because they are not in the census list. Similarly, undocumented indigenous migrants would opt not to avail of much needed support and services to avoid complications with their status.

Pandemic and relevant information

Most IP communities have expressed the lack of timely and appropriate information about COVID 19. Most states have adopted the WHO guidelines. Sufficient information, however, did not reach IP communities due to lack of communications infrastructure and the gap in language. Indigenous women, who are generally lacking skills in the national language would depend on secondary information. Partners have cited the significant role that indigenous youth played in relaying information using social media and telecommunications. In some countries like Nepal, indigenous and community radio stations were also key players.  Recognizing indigenous women as frontliners in domestic and community affairs with their roles as nurturers and carers, EcoHimal-Nepal positioned an information space near a community well to provide information on COVID-19 and  protection measures to each and every woman  who comes to draw water. Women and girls, in the said community, are primarily responsible for fetching water daily aside from other tasks like laundry.


Indigenous families are usually extended. Women are expected to be in charge of domestic concerns i.e. food and health care which extends to parents/parents-in-laws, younger siblings and disabled members of the family, if there are and even if they are in different households. While women take these on without qualms, the disruption of daily lifeways and the ensuing anxiety creates more pressure on women as they try to perform their multiple tasks.  Added to this is the remedial strategies to cope with the interruption of schools. Modular and online platforms have been resorted to which poses a big challenge to the capacities and confidence of mothers to assist children in their academics, not to mention, the capacity to avail, access and operate online platforms.

Raila, from the Bhumia tribe is struggling  hard to manage her family with elder in-laws and a child. Her husband has not been able  to return from Kerala  where he is a  wage laborer  in a construction firm. She has been dependent on the rice subsidy and  Rs 1,000.00 cash support from the  government for the last 3 months; Nabina, from Koraput district, has already incurred debt amounting to Rs.1,500.00 to sustain the family needs during the lockdowns. She is  hoping  for her husband to return soon so she could pay back her loan.

Raila and Nabina are just 2 of the countless elderly women, pregnant women, women who have children with disabilities who have  to respond to and act on their  multiple role, by themselves, while   family members are stranded elsewhere. (Pragati Koraput, Odisha; May 2020)

Health services are generally lacking in indigenous territories and this is one factor of  panic and anxiety among indigenous women. In most states, COVID-19-related services are usually found in town centers which is already a barrier for access by indigenous women who do not have capacities and resources.  In some areas the state, itself, do not have the capacity for COVID-19 to the benefit of private hospitals which means more costly services for the poor and marginalized.


In indigenous communities with access to their lands and resources, food availability, at least in the short term, is not much of a concern as the access to health services, in case anybody from the community gets infected. While supply and distribution of other goods may have been affected by health measures, indigenous communities are able to go to their farms and water sources, albeit limited and without violating social distancing prescriptions. The longer term effect is more worrying to women. With the agricultural cycle disrupted, food and seed stocks may not last long with the prolonged restrictions. The pandemic struck in during planting and harvest season which means that either they were not able to plant, were not able to harvest or lost income from their harvest. In some indigenous communities engaged in commercial production like the vegetable belt of norther Luzon, there is obviously loss of income due to the closure of markets and  non-availability of public transportation. In an agricultural town in Benguet, Philippines, truckloads of tomatoes and other vegetables were left to rot simply because of the travel restrictions. On the other hand, a drought stricken community have already used up their seed stocks for consumption during the lockdown.

Availability and access to food, however, has been more challenging to indigenous communities and families who are dependent on the market, like those in urban and semi-urban areas where traditional agriculture as an alternative form of livelihood may be impossible. While they may be more accessible to relief services, it is also very much competitive based on citizenship and vulnerability status aside from access to relevant information on this services. Despite price regulation for basic commodities, retail prices have increased as function of restricted mobility. Coupled with the decline of prices of local products due to oversupply, indigenous women and their families are pushed to avail of loans. Reports from Indonesia cite indigenous families economically dislocated started selling off their lands to corporate entities.

Food crisis and hunger is most pronounced in communities who have lost their traditional lands and forests like those displaced development projects like roads and dams in Nepal; mines, dams and industrial estates in the Philippines and policies like the recent amendments to India’s Forest Reserve Act.

Discrimination and Racism

Racism has been exposed and heightened in this pandemic.  Of the 22 documented incidences of racist attacks against indigenous peoples in North East India documented by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group between 7 February 220 to 23 March 2020, fourteen (14) involved  indigenous women and youth.  This speaks of the more vulnerable position of indigenous women based on gender. North East Indian have often been referred to by the mainstream population as ‘chinkees’. There were also reports of multiple discrimination from workplace to residence aside from the hazardous work conditions and unsympathetic administration by

Indigenous Naga women, working in hospitals in Kolkata, cited. “ .. they were even not allowed to use lifts or not allowed to come out to buy essential groceries for food;… many felt that they are compromising the patients’ and their own safety as they have “inadequate/ inappropriate PPE, masks, gloves, below-standard safety protocols, etc.; there were also reports of unpaid salaries after hospitals  closed. Such hostile situation has pushed 300 Naga women nurse to go home. (INSIDENE, 20 May 2020).


The pandemic has been weaponized to quell dissent. This is evident in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the Philippines, Covid 19 preventive measures have been undermined to intensify attacks on state critics i.e. media, progressive organizations, leaders of indigenous peoples’ organizations and communities, including indigenous women and youth as has been cited by the UNCHR itself in its latest report. Online and social media platforms have also been intensely used to spread lies and misinformation to discredit dissenters, attack their persons, throw threats including their families. 

Development Aggression

Intrusions into indigenous territories and resources as extractive industries, monocrop agro-industrial plantations, among others continued even during the lockdown although at a limited scale. Some indigenous women and youth manning the community barricade have sustained wounds and injuries after police, escorting a mining company’s fuel tanker, dismantled the barricade. The barricade was meant to bar the mining company from reentering the community since its license expired in 2019. It also served as the community checkpoint as per health measures against Covid 19. In Southern Philippines, the overall security and wellbeing of more than 432 Teduray and Lambiangan indigenous peoples in Southern Philippines remains uncertain and exacerbated by the restrictive COVID-19 measures. In March 25, after unidentified armed groups reportedly raided their community, ransacked homes and threatened to burn their houses if they do not leave, these families sought refuge in government facilities near town center. In March 28, the same armed groups were sighted near the evacuation area prompting the IDPs to relocate out of fear. Some have reportedly moved to a municipal gym and a school ground in nearby towns. Others have gone to relatives.



Recovery from the pandemic requires a holistic approach that is inclusive and gender fair, culturally appropriate, based on respect for rights and the sustains the integrity of nature for the future.

Inclusivebecause children, youth elderly and persons with disabilities are generally marginalized;

Gender fair because patriarchy is a persistent barrier to the effective recognition of women and non-binary persons;

Culturally appropriate because global and national strategies are usually not sensitive to indigenous peoples and the gender differences within,

Rights based because the inequalities unveiled by Covid 19  is the continuing gap in all development initiatives disproportionately impacting indigenous women and their communities and

Sustainable  because we owe our children their future.

States, donor agencies and  stakeholders should:


  1. Ensure effective recognition of the roles and contribution of indigenous women in sustainable food systems and health care.  This includes their knowledge and practice on natural resource management, traditional livelihoods and medicinals.  Indigenous women like traditional birth attendants should not be criminalized but given incentives for further enhancement. They can be very effective health care service providers should they be, instead, accommodated to understand  mainstream health practice without prejudice to indigenous perspectives. Being part of the community, they are also the in the best place to monitor community health.
  2. Recognition of women’s ownership and access to land and resources is an enabling factor in advancing and sustaining indigenous women’s roles and livelihoods in the light of recovering from the pandemic and the sustainable development targets.
A) Acknowledge, recognize and reward these contributions as green jobs;
B) Recognize indigenous peoples collective rights to own and manage land and the resources in their territories and respect their right to use and control these for their self-determined development;
C) Towards this end, institutionalize the effective implementation of free, prior and informed consent.
3. Invest on 
A) Strengthening health infrastructure and services in indigenous communities that are accessible, adequate and appropriate. This includes the recognition and strengthening of indigenous medicinal and healing knowledge and practice and enhancing partnerships at the community level for  health protection and disease prevention.   
 B)  Food security and livelihoods -  Recognize, support, and contribute to the development of traditional livelihoods; explore other sustainable nature-based   income sources to discourage migration for labor while reducing population pressure in  the urban and industrialized centers.  Enhance related local capacities and skills,  technology, infrastructure and services, including access to markets.
D) States should set up effective multistakeholder and multilevel mechanisms with  sufficient resources in relation to recovering from the pandemic that includes indigenous women and community representatives. Communications infrastructure should be enhanced and developed in isolated and rural areas to ensure timely  and adequate information including immediate access to emergency services. 
E) Enhanced educational system and infrastructures ensuring that schools, with standard and quality infrastructure/facilities, equipments, curricula and teachers are available at the community and local levels. Support indigenous-peoples led education and respect schools as zones of peace. 
F) Disaggregation of data based on ethnicity;
G) Providing enabling mechanisms for indigenous peoples, especially women, children and persons with disabilities to access full documentation as citizens.
4. State mechanisms to respond to pandemics should fully and effectively respect indigenous systems of community isolation and lockdowns refraining from using state priviledge or allowing non-community members/entities to enter communities without their consent;
5. State should ensure that human rights and the collective rights of indigenous peoples are respected and protected in pandemic response and mitigation measures. 



[1]Report consolidated by the AIWN with reports from AIWN members in the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, India  

   and Thailand; IPAF-AP,  UPAKAT  and Elatia partners.

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