Empowering rural leaders: a leadership school for indigenous women

“It’s time for us indigenous women to break our silence. It’s time for us to speak up.”


Elsie Mokudef is an indigenous woman farmer from the province of Maguindanao, in the Philippines. She is one of more than 150 indigenous women from around the world who have so far attended the Global Leadership School for Indigenous Women, a special capacity building programme spearheaded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (IIWF, also known as the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenes, or FIMI).

Launched in May 2015 and implemented so far in Bolivia, Peru, India, the Philippines, Panama and Paraguay, the programme seeks to empower indigenous women leaders and activists to advocate for human rights, food security and nutrition.

Crucial role of indigenous peoples – and women in particular

Given the wealth of their ancestral and traditional knowledge, the complexity of their food systems and the resilience of their agricultural practices in the face of climate change, indigenous peoples have a crucial role to play in addressing the problems of hunger, food insecurity and sustainable development at large.

Despite their importance, however, they are among the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in the world. For example, indigenous peoples account for 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they comprise about 15 percent of the world’s poor. Much of this vulnerability and marginalization stems from the violation of their rights, especially with regard to land and resources.

Indigenous women, in particular, often struggle not only with poverty and with the many challenges arising from their indigenous status, but also with gender-based discrimination that affects all spheres of their lives, exacerbating the inequalities they face both within and beyond their communities. For example, they are frequently prevented from participating in political activities and decision-making processes. 

“We see in communities that only a few women are given the opportunity to participate in decision-making and this is usually because they are insecure about speaking.”

— Elsie Mokudef (Teduray), Maguindanao, the Philippines

In comparison with their male counterparts, indigenous women often have less access to education and training, which in turn makes access to decision-making spaces even more of a challenge. This limits the contributions they can make at both household and community level, especially with regard to issues of prime importance for indigenous peoples, such as food security, seed preservation, and biodiversity conservation. 

“Women are the main providers of food in the household not only in terms of preparing it but also in sowing, planting and harvesting it. But it is still the men who decide what food or crop should be planted and harvested, what should be bought and sold in the market.”

— Darhmingliani Hloncheu (Khasi and Mizo), Meghalaya, India

In addition to being the main producers of food for the family, indigenous women typically also act as custodians of seeds and stewards of biodiversity conservation. Their involvement in decision-making is therefore critical.

“When we talk about women and food security we need to realize that women are vital [to] the production of food. It is us who produce, who prepare the food and feed our families.”

— Judith Paucar, Puno, Peru

Global Leadership School for Indigenous Women

In 2014, FAO began working with FIMI to address these and other issues through the Global Leadership School for Indigenous Women. The School, which is targeted to women leaders and human rights activists from indigenous groups, focuses on advocacy, human rights, food security and nutrition. 

“Indigenous women need this kind of school because most of us do not know about our rights; we know there are rights but we do not know how to implement them and we do not know how to advocate for them.”

— Darhmingliani Hloncheu (Khasi and Mizo), Meghalaya, India

While each school is unique in its adaptation to country needs, the overall structure is defined in three phases.

The first phase involves a week of intensive, in-person, group training in the capital city of each country. This includes workshops, discussions and presentations on a range of topics related to advocacy, human rights, food security and nutrition, as well as sessions on communications, leadership, networking, planning and strategy. 

“This is the first time that I am able to join a gathering of indigenous women from different parts of the country and even from outside our country. We can see a democratic dialogue and we are learning through sharing our experiences and listening to the experiences of others.”

— Elsie Mokudef (Teduray), Maguindanao, the Philippines

Country-specific issues affecting indigenous peoples—and women in particular—are discussed, and representatives from country-specific institutions, including government authorities, civil society, academia and other relevant sectors are invited to join in on sessions and participate in promoting dialogue. 

“The information was local, national and international, that is why I could learn how to develop advocacy processes with different authorities, being able to apply this knowledge to the organization I belong to.”

— Vanesa Viera, Pando, Bolivia 

The second phase, which lasts five months, is conducted via an e-learning / online platform. Participants read relevant documentation and share reflections, analysis and ideas via a web-based discussion forum. The process is supported by facilitators from FIMI as well as by FAO technical experts, and special guests are invited to address specific subjects. During this phase, each participant selects an issue of particular priority and relevance and, with guidance and feedback, develops a full advocacy plan to address and effect change in the chosen area or issue.  

“My advocacy plan is based in food sovereignty. We want the wheat from my region to be produced and processed to make cookies for school breakfasts, as a way to promote healthy and nutritious consumption of our local products.”

— Clementina Garnica, Potosí, Bolivia

The advocacy plans have focused on a range of goals, from increasing access to education and health services and improving food systems and food security, to enhancing women’s roles and recognition in community decision-making. 

“The idea is to manage the administration, the mayor’s office and the University of Pando to support capacity-building processes in order to avoid youth migration. In addition, this plan gives youth the opportunity to become service providers and technical assistants in the communities.”

— Vanesa Viera, Pando, Bolivia

A third and final phase features sessions on topics of interest to each group, along with presentations of the participants’ finished advocacy plans. Many of the plans developed so far reflect an extraordinary amount of effort and innovation, and have resulted in mini-project proposals. FAO and FIMI are currently exploring funding possibilities for supporting implementation of the best of these at national or community level.

Stories of positive change and progress

On completing the programme, participants are encouraged to replicate training activities in their communities, raising awareness and strengthening support for other indigenous women. 

“I feel strengthened and informed because now I know the laws and I feel we are supported to be able to make efficient advocacy in our municipalities and with our authorities.”

— Bernardina Laura, La Paz, Bolivia

In this context, many of the School’s “graduates” have reported back with stories of positive change and progress in their communities. These have included the creation of women’s groups, the organization of community discussions and seminars on laws and policies, collaboration with local non-governmental organizations on land claims, demonstrations of agricultural techniques that revive traditional ways of farming, and awareness-raising on traditional seed preservation.

“Coming here, participating in this school, I feel that I have learnt so many things that I can take back to the community, to the women I work with.”

— Darhmingliani Hloncheu (Khasi and Mizo), Meghalaya, India

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