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Indigenous Women and Data

Published onFeb 02, 2020
Indigenous Women and Data


  • Non inclusion of indigenous people in the collection and use of Indigenous data results in concerns about responsible knowledge production, biopiracy and appropriation of traditional knowledge, unreliability, and misrepresentations.

  • Indigenous Data Sovereignty addresses the removal of indigenous people’s perspective from data about themselves.

  • There is a lack of data disaggregated along ethnicity generally, and along ethnicity and gender specifically.

  • Participatory methods of data collection that voice the concerns of underrepresented communities are crucial to addressing knowledge gaps across global, national, and local scales.


Data on indigenous women requires specific attention, particularly in Asia and other contexts in the global south. Historically, indigenous people and women, in particular, have been marginalised from state-led development. International conventions and national laws across Asia broadly outline a set of rights for indigenous people. Mechanisms to accurately record these socially and culturally diverse groups are needed to measure the progress towards the realisation of these rights, and steer efforts towards protecting their culture, identity and livelihood.1

Indigenous people have not been recognised by the national population census of several countries.2 In the event that data is collected, lack of input from local communities during data collection reduces quality of such data. The absence of standard definitions regarding what constitutes ‘indigenous’ can produce data that underestimates indigenous people and may lead to inappropriate and irrelevant policy interventions.3 Reliance on data collected by external entities, divorced from the needs and aspirations of the community being studied, also impedes informed policy making.

Open Data and Indigenous People

Initiatives in the open data space have contributed to producing data that is inclusive of indigenous people. Several initiatives have emerged in the field of land and environment data and climate change data - some of which have addressed the intersectionality of gender in their design. Indigenous Navigator is one such project which works with not-for-profits, journalists, indigenous organisations, and communities to produce data measuring the degree of realisation of the rights of indigenous people.4 It provides tools and resources to the community to record data about itself and monitor their rights.

Parallely, the absence of indigenous people in the open data space and their lack of engagement with open data has created several barriers in effective and responsible knowledge making. Practices of collection and use and opening up of data might be at odds with indigenous knowledges and life-worlds.5 Concerns in methods of data collection range from non-inclusion of indigenous voices in the research design to their absence among end users. Focus on quantitative data over qualitative data also leads to the imposition of external categories on indigenous communities.6 Collection of both quantitative and qualitative data requires appropriate indicators that align with the worldviews of indigenous people and disaggregation by ethnicity. 7 Additionally, concerns around “biopiracy”, misuse and appropriation of traditional knowledge of indigenous people also need to be addressed.8

It is pertinent to note that indigenous people have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that would affect their rights, as incorporated in Article 18 of UNDRIP, and the right to pursue their economic, social and cultural development in Article 3 of UNDRIP.9 A notable initiative is the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), which is engaged in documentation, advocacy and capacity development for indigenous people.10 Their objectives are to realise the rights of indigenous people to land, cultural integrity, and development on their own terms.11 Its annual report, The Indigenous World, documents the state of indigenous people’s rights globally.12 Initiatives that develop tools to work with indigenous communities directly, or advocate for provision of infrastructure to bridge the rural-urban digital gap have emerged. For instance, Cambodian organisation ‘Aide et Action Cambodia’ (AEA) works on developing digital libraries to improve access to educational materials in indigenous languages for ethnic minorities.13

LandMark is an initiative which was created to fill the critical gap in information on indigenous communities and land rights from information held by indigenous people.14 It also provides information about the legal rights over a piece of land, changes in land cover over time, and the contributions of the indigenous people to protect the environment.15 This interactive tool collects its data from the community, recognised experts and the government records, thereby enabling recognition to local understandings as well as providing a ‘current picture’ of the world, vital to enable legal recognition of the land and avoid counterclaims and conflicts. In some situations, the internal risk assessment platforms of companies incorporate LandMark data and use it to avoid investing in land which could lead to counterclaims and conflict.16

The Land Portal Foundation creates land governance data with its partners through ‘linked and open data technologies’, thus aiding in land governance and better land rights.17 Landesa is an organisation that conducts research on land rights, they produce infographics to measure benefits of strong land rights, and also advocate on rural land rights.18 They also engage specifically on women’s land rights. 19

The act of digitising indigenous knowledge and information can result in the removal of indigenous people from the data governance process, and create questions about the ownership of the data.20 Indigenous people and nations are more than mere stakeholders in the data ecosystem and have the right to control data about their people, lands and resources.21 The act of ‘opening data by default’, which is a principle under the Open Data Charter (ODC), fails to consider the question of who this data is for, who will have the privilege to access and interpret this data, as well as the issue of collective privacy. A collective right to privacy is an essential right of Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) which is under threat generally, and even more so with the rise of algorithmic decision-making and data mining.22 The Indigenous Navigator addresses these concerns by allowing indigenous organisations and communities to upload their data and contribute to their database while keeping their information private, thus their information is not made publicly available without consent.23

Indigenous Data Sovereignty

In its first and second sessions held in 2002 and 2003, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNFPII) determined that the lack of disaggregated data on indigenous people is a major challenge facing national and international bodies.24 The lack of reliable data regarding indigenous people is responsible for poorly formed policy decisions. In areas where data exists, its unreliability is owed to the failure to capture local realities due to colonisation, biases and the failure to include the local community in data collection.25 Indigenous people are often removed from mainstream public debates which can often feature data collected from their communities and which is interpreted and used without any input by the community. Language barriers also play a role in restricting access to information by indigenous people, as well as removing indigenous voices from mainstream discourses. Lack of representation of indigenous voices increases the risk of misinterpretation of data.26 The Indigenous Navigator has made some progress in regards these concerns by involving indigenous people in the collection of data about themselves and in the decision to open the data.27

Developing indicators has been suggested as a mechanism to measure the implementation of SDGs in relation to indigenous people’s rights, access and ownership over land, social, economic and cultural discrimination, the level of control over their data, and participation in decision-making. However the measurement and comparison that results from the use of indicators are problematic because indigenous communities are measured by indicators that they have had no role in determining.28

Indigenous data sovereignty (IDS) protects the right of indigenous people to govern the collection, ownership, and application of data about themselves, thus maximising the benefit of open data for these communities.29 Indigenous communities are by and large found to be poorer than surrounding settler states, and often cannot organise their funds to collect or organise information about themselves - implying that they have to rely on information collected by outsiders.30 Indigenous Data Sovereignty allows indigenous communities to break away from restrictive practices and definitions of open data. For example, the use of art, oral traditions, stories, and written records to collect, store, share, and use data, and challenge the focus on quantitative data as opposed to qualitative data and lived experiences.31

Data on Indigenous Women

Indigenous women suffer double marginalisation by being a women within heavily marginalised communities. This has resulted in higher degrees of poverty, limited access to healthcare services, information and communication technology, infrastructure, financial services, education and employment, and higher rates of violence.32 In order to secure the rights of indigenous girls and women, data collection has to be sensitive to exclusions resulting from ethnicity, gender, race, class, and in some contexts, caste.33

Barriers to Access

Despite multiple layers of inequality, women have proven to be “agents of change” in their communities by contributing towards food security and wellbeing.34 Effort must be made to enable access and use of data by communities who this data represents, through education, training, making data available in different ethnic languages, working on ‘proactive transparency’ and innovating ways to allow access to information for people who do not have digital connectivity.35

Indigenous women’s role as knowledge-keepers and in the intergenerational transfer of indigenous knowledge is widely recognised.36 Even as there is recognition of the crucial role women play in forest conservation, in the household, as food providers, and as leaders of rural enterprise, women in some nations are not allowed to own land or have severely restricted rights over land, and are confined to performing specific functions on the land.37 Such restrictions, combined with cultural stereotypes, often threaten women’s economic wellbeing and their decision making powers.38

Indigenous women are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change which would impact the performance of their responsibilities and ultimately impact their families and communities. 39 Initiatives such as Oxfam’s pink phones project provides phones to women from Cambodia’s rural community, giving them access to information that is vital for their livelihood.40

In the ‘Toolkit for researching women’s internet access and use’ created by collaboration between the Alliance for Affordable Internet, World Wide Web Foundation, Association for Progressive Communication and GSMA, it was acknowledged that there is a lack of data and understanding of ‘access and barrier’ challenges experienced by women from specific circumstances such as women refugees, women with disabilities and indigenous women.41

The Mobile Gender Gap report of 2019 does not use the phrase ‘indigenous women’, but their findings indicate that the percentage of the population that does not have mobile phones are disproportionately rural, illiterate and older, and predominantly female.42 The World Wide Web Foundation’s study ‘Women’s Rights Online’ recognised the need for their research in rural areas but chose urban areas for their research due to the assurance of basic infrastructure in those places.43

CARE Vietnam has recognised the barriers faced by indigenous women in accessing information on laws and policies, in particular that which is relevant to their everyday lives - such as data on economic development, agricultural markets, and credit programmes, among others.44 Indigenous women are not proportionally represented in local governance, depriving them access to various sources of information that reach village governments.45 This is further compounded by low education levels and gender stereotypes regarding appropriate roles to be played by women.46 To contribute towards closing this gap, CARE has developed an initiative to raise awareness about legislation on the right to information, and create communication mechanisms between local communities and authorities.47

Exclusion from Datasets

Despite the inclusion of disaggregation by ethnicity in the Sustainable Development Goals, only 4 out of 169 targets mention ethnicity or indigenous status, with no mention of indigenous women specifically and separately.48

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land acknowledges that empowering women and indigenous people is important to guarantee preservation of forest, land management and food security.49 Therefore, securing better land rights for women is essential for their economic security, personal agency as well as the conservation of the planet and its resources. There are national statistics that do the work of comparing land rights between men and women, but fail to distinguish indigenous women from urban women, which is a crucial point of disaggregation.50

Indigenous women are severely impacted by loss of traditional livelihood, conflict, and displacement. As a result of expropriation of land, indigenous communities in the Asia-Pacific have witnessed an increase in armed conflict and militarisation, creating unsafe environments for indigenous women and girls.51 Violence against women and girls is also one of the consequences of forced dispossession of land.52 A study on violence against indigenous girls, adolescents and young women recommends addressing the ‘statistical silence’ on violence against indigenous girls and women by ensuring that data is disaggregated by ethnicity at the time of collection and use. The research talks about future research agendas to fill the gap in knowledge, focusing on various forms of violence against women and girls, and the need to pay attention to intersectional inequalities like the experience of indigenous woman with disability.53 Gaps in both quantitative and qualitative data that addresses ethnicity, sex and age restricts ones ability to understand intersectional identities and the different risks of violence associated with them.54

As per the study, addressing gaps in knowledge also includes developing strategies for responding to violence against indigenous women which includes taking stock of available legal recourse, as well as documenting incidents of violence to enable the drawing of lessons from the same.55 Such participatory data collection drives are used to document missing and murdered indigenous women. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement demanded government accountability for missing indigenous women in the USA, in response to a data gap on missing women, the SIHB stepped up to collect information from the community through community data-gathering events.56 The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women from New Mexico also acknowledges the importance of community based data collection to build the capacity of tribal nations and native communities towards supporting victims and preventing present and future violence. 57

Initiatives for Indigenous Women

Apart from the initiatives mentioned earlier, research published by Tebtebba foundation has documented the centrality of women’s traditional knowledge and practices in forest management, their vulnerability as well as potential in climate change with partners in 11 countries, including Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Philippines etc., with examples of women from indigenous communities of these nations and their relationship with the forest and their communities.58

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a global coalition of organisations who are invested in advancing the land and resource rights of indigenous people through information driven by the concerned communities themselves.59 Their analytics work is supported and verified by a coalition of national experts, created with the help of the community, and affiliated networks worldwide.60 Their 2017 report, Power and Potential, assessed the status of developing countries’ legal framework regarding women’s community forest rights, wherein they collect qualitative data on women’s legally recognised rights to community forests under their national laws.61 Its findings indicated a lack of decision making power amongst rural women even as they take on more responsibilities within their community. In 2018, RRI also published an analysis of legislative best practice to secure women’s right for community lands. 62 And in 2019, they published a third analysis on strengthening Indigenous women’s right to govern community land.63 Women, themselves have also created platforms to discuss their stories to exchange information about best practices for defending their rights and territories.64


Indigenous communities are often removed from the data collected about them. The collection, interpretation, and use of this data without involving indigenous people impedes on the reliability of the data, and raises questions about ownership and appropriation of traditional knowledge, and community privacy. The removal of indigenous people from their data is addressed by ‘Indigenous data sovereignty’. The experience of marginalisation is compounded for indigenous women who face exclusion from datasets, and infrastructural and social barriers from accessing information. This entry underlines these problems and highlights initiatives working to address these issues.

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