Alma Grace Barla: defending the rights of tribal women in India

Women from tribal communities in India are vulnerable to economic exploitation, and are frequently sexually abused and assaulted based on their “gender and ethnicity”, according to 31-year old Alma Grace Barla, who is a member of the Oraon tribal community.

The Oraon is one of 698 tribal communities in the “central tribal belt” of India.

Tribal women, because they are marginalized, are often forced into informal labor sectors such as domestic work and the sex industry. In search of work, many migrate to the big population centres.

“During the migration to cities, my people do not have any idea of the risks. There is a lack of awareness of our rights,” says Alma.

Alma, from the Sundargarh district of Orissa, a tribal populated state of India, was one of the 26 Fellows selected to participate in the 2013 Indigenous Fellowship Programme of the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva. The Office launched the Programme to give indigenous peoples the opportunity to learn more about the United Nations and what it offers to assist in the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. When Fellows return to their communities, they can use this knowledge to advance human rights.

Alma, who volunteers for the Society for Development of Tribals/Adivasi Vikash Sanstha in New Delhi, strives to empower tribal women who have migrated to urban areas in search of employment and educational opportunities.

The journey from villages to cities for tribal women is very dangerous, according to Alma. Those who survive and reach their destinations are then economically exploited and are often sexually assaulted by their landlords and job placement agents.

There is a lack of guidance,” Barla says. “Tribal women are naïve about the dangers of leaving their community.”

In cooperation with other NGOs, Alma’s organisation promotes the empowerment and socio economic development of tribal women through job oriented development programmes and vocational training. “I want to show people that with determination everyone can move up,” she says.

After the Fellowship Programme, Alma intends to generate awareness in her community of their rights as indigenous peoples.

Since the launch of the Indigenous Fellowship in 1997, around 270 indigenous men and women have participated in the training programme in Geneva. In addition to the familiarisation with the UN system, human rights instruments and mechanisms, as well as the programs and activities of other UN agencies, the indigenous fellows also take part in the annual session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the group of experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to advise on indigenous issues.

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights, which led to the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its creation gave a new impetus to the recognition of human rights principles which has seen fundamental progress in the promotion and protection of human rights.

In recent years, there have been significant advances in indigenous issues and rights, including the landmark adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. In the same year, an Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was established by the Human Rights Council.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, established in 1985, gives indigenous peoples the opportunity to participate in the sessions of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, established in 2000, the Expert Mechanism, the Human Rights Council, including its Universal Periodic Review mechanism, and the treaty bodies. In 2012, the mandate of the Fund was expanded to include support for indigenous peoples to participate in the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, to be held in 2014.

A Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples was appointed in 2001.

The second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People started in 2005 and will end in the year 2014. The first decade was from 1995 to 2004.

12 August 2013

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