Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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7 min read

Minority and indigenous women face a unique set of challenges on account of their gender and community status, a form of intersectional discrimination that is often particularly difficult to address. As neither men within the same identity group or women from the majority community are likely to experience the same barriers, the situation of minority and indigenous women can be especially isolating and difficult to respond to, pushing them further into disadvantage and deprivation.

Access to employment

This discrimination takes many forms and occurs at different levels – within the community, among wider society and at the level of official policy. For instance, it may be institutional: an employer may stipulate certain requirements that favour men and prevent women, particularly those from minorities, from applying for a job. The imposition of a dress code, for example, could specifically prevent women from certain identity groups from applying, such as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab or headscarf. It can also be structural, where state policies, systems and rules work to sideline minority women. Immigration laws in some states can discriminate against particular groups of people, and in many cases they are likely to specifically disadvantage the women in those groups.

Female migrant workers in the Middle East and East Asia face specific forms of gender violence and have no protection in their host countries. Additionally, they are discriminated against based on their national identity and their gender, and are likely to receive lower salaries, trapping them further in cycles of poverty. In Malaysia, while female migrant workers generally are at considerable risk of exploitation, some ethnicities are particularly marginalized. Indonesian maids, for example, are likely to be paid half of what their Filipino counterparts earn due to popular racist stereotypes about them.[i]


Similarly, discriminatory health policies which deny access to services to minority and indigenous communities can affect women in distinct ways. As the Israeli government refuses to recognize a number of Arab Bedouin villages in the Negev, there are virtually no health facilities available to people who live in them. However, in some instances discrimination is not only created by neglect and exclusion but can also be the direct result of state policies specifically targeting women from minority or indigenous communities. In the Czech Republic, the practice of sterilization of Roma women was embedded in communist ideology that sought to target the fertility of women deemed ‘undesirables’ by the state.[ii] Though the practice has been declared illegal and is no longer carried out, the fight for compensation for victims has been protracted.


Beyond government policy, intersectional discrimination can also extend to the justice system, preventing minority and indigenous women from seeking redress for human rights violations. While in many countries women face stark inequalities and obstructions when dealing with police or the judiciary, the situation is even more challenging when exacerbated by hierarchies such as caste. In India, for instance, a 2006 survey of 500 Dalit women who had experienced violence found that 40.2 per cent did not attempt to seek any type of legal redress out of fear or communal pressure, another 26.5 per cent were blocked in their attempt to seek redress and a further 17.4 per cent were obstructed from obtaining justice by police. As a result, less than 1 per cent of cases led to the perpetrators being convicted in court.[iii]

Sexual violence

Intersectional discrimination can also be targeted towards women from certain identity groups. In situations of conflict minority women can be targeted for rape and other forms of sexual violence. Cases of women being targeted for sexual attacks during conflict have been reported from a number of different countries, including Bosnia, Columbia, East Timor, Rwanda, Kosovo and Sri Lanka. Rape and other forms of violence are now internationally recognized as forms of genocide. Prior to attacks, sexualized propaganda can be used, as it was in Rwanda, to incite attacks on minority women. In highly militarized and post-conflict situations, such as Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the armed conflict, minority women continue to be vulnerable to sexual assault and may find themselves forced to engage in sex work to access resources.[iv]

A central part of the problem is that, while one aspect of discrimination may be recognized and steps taken to alleviate its effects, the other dimension may be overlooked – meaning that the complex issues facing minority women specifically may not be addressed by general gender or community-based interventions. Violence against women, for instance, is generally recognized as a form of gender-based discrimination, but the manner in which minority women may be especially vulnerable is not often noted. In Uganda’s Batwa community, women are targeted for rape and sexual violence because of a popular belief that having sex with a Batwa women can cure particular types of illness.[v] This particular case of gender-based violence is specific to the identity of the woman.

Trafficking in women, while generally studied and dealt with through the lens of gender discrimination, is also often closely tied to minority or indigenous status. Victims from these communities typically face higher levels of poverty and are more likely to be affected by conflict, making them easy targets for traffickers. Similarly, while immigration laws and national security legislation are frequently discussed in terms of racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, the gender dimensions of these policies can also be very significant. While stop and search operations can be seen as discriminatory towards certain identity groups, women who wear a headscarf or other visible signs of their identity can be more readily targeted and subjected to other forms of abuse, such as sexual assault, while these are carried out.


The failure to understand this form of intersectionality is a major barrier to the development of effective solutions for minority and indigenous women. Part of the challenge in dealing with this issue at the state and international levels is that there is a dearth of information on the extent of the problem, with little in the way of disaggregated data. Furthermore, stigmatization of minority women also works to obscure, and even reinforce, discrimination. In the British media, for instance, Muslim women are frequently portrayed as being oppressed and ‘helpless’ victims of patriarchal repression. Yet the fallout from this simplistic representation is often increased hostility towards the Muslim community, with women bearing the brunt of these attacks.[vi]

Changes to laws and policy, and the strict implementation of existing anti-discrimination legislation is essential to combat intersectional discrimination. This requires political will, social awareness and education, among other factors. To address these issues properly, however, there must also be a much better understanding of the many ways that different aspects of intersectionality affect the everyday lives of minority women. The effects of intersectional discrimination can be complex and long-standing, and addressing these issues often requires a holistic, far-reaching response.

For example, though retention in education from primary to secondary level is generally low among pastoralist communities in East Africa, girls within this group are even less likely to stay in school. While pastoralist boys may have to leave education for various reasons, girls in the community face added challenges that further narrow their chances of a full education. Besides early marriage, girls may also be taken out of school because the distance to travel is too far and it is dangerous for them, or because their education may be seen as less important.

In summary, then, to achieve better outcomes for girls in minority and indigenous communities, a whole range of social and cultural issues need to be addressed. Legislation against intersectional discrimination alone is not always sufficient, and a much more comprehensive framework is needed to respond to the multiple ways in which minority and minority women can be affected by intersectional discrimination. An essential first step to achieve this is a greater understanding of these challenges, and a recognition that conventional anti-discrimination measures may not reach those groups who, like minority and indigenous women, face intersectional forms of discrimination.

Farah Mihlar

[i] Rowland, C. and Carnegie, M., ‘Violence against women in indigenous, minority and migrant groups’, in Hoare, J. (ed.), op. cit., p.36.

[ii] Bakhru, T.S., ‘Reproductive rights: a long way to go’, in Hoare, J., op. cit., p.47.

[iii] Irudayam, A., Mangubhai, J.P. and Lee, J., Dalit Women Speak Out: Violence against Dalit Women in India, Chennai, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, National Federation of Dalit Women, and Institute of Development Education, Action and Studies, 2006.

[iv] MRG, Living with Insecurity: Marginalization and Sexual Violence against Women in North and East Sri Lanka, London, MRG, October 2013.

[v] Ramsay, K., Uncounted: The Hidden Lives of Batwa Women, London, MRG, May 2010, p.15.

[vi] Rowland and Carnegie, op. cit., p.38.

Photo: Bedouin woman in Israel. Credit: Farah Mihlar