Indigenous Peoples: "We want to be seen as people, not objects or heritage"

UN Human Rights in Mexico has just published a book telling stories about the courageous actions of indigenous women defending their own rights

ONU México  -   Miriam Pascual Jiménez, a Zapotec woman from the northern highlands of Oaxaca, is a social anthropologist and lawyer who has dedicated much of her life to defending the human rights of women and girls.

Miriam Pascual Jiménez is a Zapotec woman from the northern highlands of Oaxaca, from the community of Guelatao. She is a social anthropologist and lawyer and has dedicated the last few years to working for the defence of women and girls on issues related to the defence of territory, the fight against human trafficking and the defence of women's rights in Guelatao.

Miriam is a very cheerful, supportive and determined woman who has dedicated a large part of her life to the defence of human rights and the preservation of her culture, land and language. Her story has recently been documented in the book "The Courageous Adventures of Women Defenders. Stories for girls and boys of all ages", published by UN Human Rights.

Miriam grew up and lived in Guelatao and saw how her family members, although they left the community for work or study, always returned to bring something back to the community.

She was fortunate in that she had the opportunity to study for two degrees.

"Practically a privilege in the region. There are very few of us who get a university education. It is a complicated issue because the discrimination in the education system against indigenous people is huge. So I actually managed to study because my grandmother broke with the tradition of forced marriage towards her," she says.

She first studied social anthropology in Puebla and then law in Mexico City. She had to overcome many obstacles in order to complete her studies, from discrimination to lack of resources.

For example, she had to sell sweets to finish her studies. But it was there that she specialised in human rights.

In her first degree, she learned how to document cases of human rights violations and, in her second, how to conduct strategic litigation.

She began to work on various issues such as organised crime, indigenous peoples, disappearances and human trafficking: "But always, in my memory every day, there was the sierra".

UN Mexico - Miriam is now the head of the Municipal Women's Instance in the municipality of Ixtlán de Juárez
Back home

Guelatao is a community governed by the normative system of uses and customs. Miriam returned a few years ago to give something back to her community.

"Although I am a human rights defender, the service I provide not only in the community, but also in the region, is very focused on the promotion, dissemination and re-signification of what human rights are (...) That is why the discourse of human rights is necessary, to appropriate it for us to interact among ourselves, but even more so to interact in this global context, because if it is not based on human rights, there is definitely no parameter of equality to relate to", explains Miriam.

For her, the great challenge in the region is to remove the stigma about human rights, "(...) because in our daily lives we have always been told that this is not for us. As long as we do not assume ourselves in this international legal context, we will continue to be seen as things, as objects, as patrimony, not as people".

Getting the message across clearly

The second challenge was to do it in a way that is respectful to the community, that does not bring in technical language that no one understands. "It's as if you believe that there is no knowledge within the community, so we looked for where human rights were within the community and we began to do it through photography workshops, radio workshops, scriptwriting workshops, voice-over workshops, in short, everything for the cultural theme".

In this work, the radio has been the tool through which they have been able to disseminate information and involve the community that faces difficulties in accessing technology or the Internet.

Miriam is also now the head of the Municipal Women's Institute of the municipality of Ixtlán de Juárez, which is responsible for guiding the authorities in issuing respectful laws that guarantee a life free of violence. She is also in charge of helping the Public Prosecutor's Office and state institutions to adopt an intercultural approach.

For her, there are two indispensable tasks: to strengthen the process of disseminating information on human rights, which implies having our own radio station; and to have a shelter for women who are victims of violence.

In the meantime, Miriam goes with the young people of the community to record radio capsules to disseminate information on human rights, while at the same time rescuing the traditional knowledge of the Zapotec people of the region.

This year's theme for the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is "The role of indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge".

For her, having contributed to the creation of the book published by UN Human Rights "means the possibility of saying that, despite the obstacles, we have to make commitments to the community from the knowledge of the community or from the knowledge from which we obtain it. Because there is knowledge everywhere".

UN Mexico - Through radio, Miriam spreads information on human rights and engages young people in the community
Amplifying the voice of indigenous women

Miriam is a perfect example of the International Day's theme. As the UN Secretary-General points out in a message on the occasion, they "are fierce defenders of indigenous languages and cultures" and "defend the environment and the human rights of indigenous peoples".

For this reason, António Guterres argues that "to build an equitable and sustainable future that leaves no one behind, we must amplify the voices of indigenous women" and stresses that "indigenous traditional knowledge can offer solutions to many of our common challenges".

UN work with indigenous peoples in Mexico

Mexico is home to 68 indigenous peoples, 10% of its total population.  Its linguistic heritage includes 68 indigenous languages, making Mexico the tenth most linguistically diverse country in the world.

The promise of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind is of crucial importance for indigenous peoples. In turn, indigenous peoples and communities have much to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For this reason, the actions of the United Nations in Mexico have an intercultural approach, which promotes diversity and focuses efforts to combat discrimination, promote inclusion, integration and equity in access to development opportunities for indigenous peoples and communities.

Some of UN Mexico's efforts to achieve these objectives include:

  • Assisting in the design of laws on equality, inclusion and non-discrimination in the exercise of the rights of indigenous peoples, including prior consultation.
  • Promote the right to intercultural education that promotes their knowledge and traditions.
  • Create conditions of equality in the integration of indigenous peoples, including women, in productive chains.
  • Participate in decision-making spaces and strengthen their capacities for the economic empowerment and sustainable management of indigenous peoples' resources.
  • To manage knowledge that guarantees freedom of expression and the development of media and linguistic heritage.
  • Combat different types of violence, including against women and indigenous peoples' human rights defenders.