Building the Evidence Base on Participation of Indigenous Peoples in Elections
For the past year, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has partnered with three organizations fighting for the political, social, and economic rights of Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous women and Indigenous persons with disabilities. Fundación Guillermo Toriello (FGT), based in Guatemala, Endorois Indigenous Women Empowerment Network (EIWEN), based in Kenya, and National Indigenous Disabled Women Association Nepal (NIDWAN) have conducted extensive research on the issues Indigenous Peoples face when participating in electoral processes.
This article highlights findings from focus group discussions (FGDs) in which people from similar backgrounds gather to share their experiences related to a specific research topic. The collaborative global report from this project, supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), will include recommendations for Election Management Bodies (EMBs), parliaments, ministries, and civil society in creating an enabling environment for meaningful participation of Indigenous Peoples.
Analysis of Focus Group Discussions and Research
Total population: 17.3 million (World Bank)
Indigenous Peoples population: 44% (Guatemala Census, 2018)
Percentage of Indigenous representatives in legislative offices: 9.37% (2020-24)
When social activists María Velasquez and Lin Valenzuela, colleagues at FGT, attend meetings together in Guatemala, people often turn to Lin, of Spanish and Indigenous descent, to speak instead of María, who is of Mayan descent.
María is among the more than 476 million Indigenous Peoples fighting for their rights across 90 countries. To shed further light and address these barriers, they are listening to and collecting stories from Indigenous communities, including Indigenous persons with disabilities, in their countries to advance social and political policies.
While the Indigenous population, including Maya, Garifuna, and Xinka peoples, make up approximately 44 percent of the population, the groups—along with minority non-Indigenous groups such as Afro-descendants, Creole, Afro mestizo, and Ladino-Mestizo—face discrimination in achieving social, political, legal, and economic rights. Indigenous women like María often face heightened barriers and challenges.
"The patriarchal system…permeates Guatemalan society of colonial and neocolonial ideological dominance, devaluation and invisibility of culture, spirituality, and contributions of Indigenous Peoples,” Lin said.
One Indigenous woman elected as part of her municipal council, with whom Maria and Lin spoke, said her colleagues never allowed her to chair the council as planned.
“At the community level, there are patriarchal pacts between male leaders that make it difficult for women to participate in decision-making processes,” they said.
Lin and Maria concluded with imperative financial and political recommendations that must be implemented to improve environments for Indigenous women saying, “Political, economic, social and cultural conditions must be improved for Indigenous women via public policy initiatives, social investment and a guaranteed public financing in the General Budget of Revenues and Expenditures of the Nation.”
Total Population: 54 million (World Bank)
Indigenous Peoples population: 25% (IWGIA)
Total number of Indigenous representatives in legislative offices: 9 (2022)
In Kenya, EIWEN Executive Director Christine Kandie and other Indigenous women face similar exclusionary barriers when they attempt to participate in politics. “We have a strong culture in Kenya whereby women are not seen as leaders,” she said.
Christine noted Indigenous persons—especially those with intersectional identities such as being a woman or a person with a disability—face very similar issues in Kenya. Though marginalized groups are eligible for support under the Representation of Special Interest Group Laws, Kenya has not demonstrated a commitment to recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“These [Indigenous] women don’t benefit from government affirmative action that is geared toward empowering women, so they’re left behind,” Christine said.
Working with duty-bearers such as the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Christine noted EIWEN’s goal is for the government to establish separate policies that protect the electoral rights of Indigenous persons with disabilities and Indigenous women, "We bring the realities and challenges that we went through when we want to be a leader.
EIWEN’s extensive intersectional research on Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous women and Indigenous persons with disabilities, aims to inform and encourage government and interested stakeholders toward supporting the advancement of electoral rights for all Kenyans while highlighting the unique barriers Indigenous Peoples face.
Total population: 30.3 million (World Bank)
Indigenous Peoples population: 36-50% (IWGIA)
Total number of Indigenous representatives who ran for seats in House of Representatives: 27 (2022)
When interviewing Indigenous Peoples, NIDWAN President Pratima Gurung was struck by how many Indigenous persons did not know about the electoral and political institutions of Indigenous self-governance systems.
She noted the NIDWAN study found that most Indigenous persons with disabilities are neither engaged in exercising their political rights in their Indigenous customary institutions nor in state-led political processes. This includes registering to vote, engaging and influencing political parties, accessing information about EMBs and the election process, running for office, and being involved in the decision-making processes.
“The preconditions related to Indigenous Peoples in exercising their collective rights, right to self-determination, free prior and informed consent, accessibility, and a conducive environment for exercising their political rights at a broader level is crucial,” Pratima said.
She emphasized that most Indigenous Peoples in Nepal, including Indigenous persons with disabilities, are co-opted and assimilate with the state-led sovereign process of exercising political rights, resulting in a loss of Indigenous values and knowledge. This is mainly due to a lack of investment in democratic institutions that encourage selecting leadership and good governance systems. There was high interest among participants in the FGDs and key informant interviews pertaining to intersectional identities, as most participants had limited previous knowledge of intersectional multiple identities groups, resulting in a collective curiosity to know more about layered issues and exploring means of addressing those barriers.
- Develop voter education materials in Indigenous languages.
- Target voter education to marginalized Indigenous persons, including Indigenous persons with disabilities and Indigenous women.
- Develop education initiatives tailored to young Indigenous persons on their rights and participation.
- Create employment opportunities for young people who are civic educators.
- Develop leadership programming for Indigenous women EMBs should consult IPOs.
- Hire Indigenous persons at EMBs.
- Provide reasonable accommodations for Indigenous persons with disabilities.
- Ensure multiple Indigenous communities are represented (avoid tokenization).
- Review boundary delimitation and adjust to ensure that Indigenous Peoples are not split across districts.
- Reform and update voter registration systems to facilitate access for Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous women and Indigenous persons with disabilities.