Violence, customary law and indigenous women’s rights in Asia

It is now widely recognized that the majority of the world’s indigenous peoples live in Asia, and that Asia therefore also holds the world’s most diverse indigenous population. Collated rough country level estimates for South, Southeast and East Asia lead us to conclude that indigenous peoples may number as many as, or even more than, 260 million people. Comprised of hundreds of ethnic groups with their own distinct languages, cultures, social organizations and livelihood systems, Asia’s indigenous peoples are harbouring a large share of the world’s cultural diversity.

The particular religion, culture, livelihood system and social organization of a people affect the situation of women and men and their relationship to each other. This means that gender relations differ from one indigenous society to another. Society assigns particular roles, rights and responsibilities to men and women along with their relative status. In some indigenous societies in Asia, like among the Batek of Malaysia, the status of men and women is more or less equal. In other indigenous societies in Asia, like among the Hmong of Southwest China and adjacent countries, men are very dominant. In most indigenous societies in Asia the gender relations lie somewhere in-between these two poles.

There are however also factors within communities that affect the relationship between men and women, such as age, marital status (married, unmarried, widowed), political and economic status of their family (daughters of leaders or wealthy land owners etc.) or education and specific skills they possess (being a healer, traditional midwife). And a woman may experience changes in her status and gender relations during her lifetime, i.e. she may gain more respect and rights as a mother and the older she grows.

Often, the gender relations in indigenous societies has been somewhat idealized and inequalities have been overlooked. The Naga anthropologist Dolly Kikon, for example, criticizes the anthropological distortion of Naga society in this respect and reminds us what realities Naga women are facing: “Every Naga woman has experienced humiliation and insults from the men on the basis of her womanhood. These men are not outsiders or strangers. They are their ‘respected’ uncles, cousins and in some cases their fathers and brothers who never fail to remind them about the predestined inferior roles that have already been slated out for them.” (Kikon 2002: 179)

Gender relations in Asian indigenous societies have undergone and continue to undergo changes, in response to external factors. Values and gender relations of the dominant mainstream society which indigenous peoples are forced to co-exist with can have a detrimental effect on the status and thus the overall situation of indigenous women. In India and Nepal, for example, some indigenous peoples have come to be strongly influenced by Hindu society in which women have a decidedly subordinate status. Adaptation to Hindu society may even go as far as the adoption of the practice of demanding a dowry, which carries with it the implication that baby girls become unwanted and unborn girls are often forcefully aborted. On the other hand, education raises awareness among indigenous women and offers access to jobs and positions which carry a higher status and thus the potential to change gender relations.

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