For Claudia Sánchez, a 24-year-old from a Tinujei, or Triqui, community in southern Mexico, traditions and customs, such as traditional dress, are important to maintain “so we don´t lose sight of our roots, or who we are.”

But traditional law often prohibits women from holding leadership positions, owning land, or participating in civic life, including attending public meetings.

And indigenous women, who comprise 14 percent of Mexico´s female population, are starting to demand change.

Many indigenous women leaders argue that while they fight to preserve their ancient traditions and laws, they must also eradicate any counter-productive traditions, such as the exclusion of indigenous women.

**Women´s rights ignored**

The debate over traditional laws of indigenous peoples around Mexico surged in 1994 in the wake of the Zapatista uprising.

Researcher Laura Valladares, who recently led a training program for indigenous women for the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, found that many traditional norms contradict women´s rights, such as the sale of women, forced marriage and almost negligible access to land and popular representation. These are on top of violations committed by the state, such as the lack of health services and arbitrary arrests.

A major problem is that the norms that govern indigenous community life are important to establish their autonomy. But the majority of indigenous judicial authorities and leaders ignore women´s rights, said indigenous women in the heavily indigenous Guerrero and Chiapas states.

In the state of Oaxaca, 418 of the 570 municipalities are ruled by traditional indigenous law, and in at least 100 of them women´s participation is prohibited.

In 2007, Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a young Zapoteca indigenous leader, registered for the mayoral office, but when she started showing a lead the elections were cancelled because she was a woman and women in her community do not have the right to govern.

**Family first?**

Women´s traditional family obligations also impede them from gaining more participation, but for the observation of their most basic rights.

Indigenous rights promoter Merit Ichin Santiesteban, from Jitotol, a village in the Zoque region of Chiapas, said that in land disputes or even domestic violence against women, community authorities will dismiss the woman´s complaints, saying, “he´s your husband” or “it´s your family.”

“There are traditional laws that we do like: the clothing, my festivals, my medicinal herbs…,” she said, during a June 9 interview at the nongovernmental indigenous group Kinal Antzetik, that has been defending indigenous women´s rights for almost 20 years. Other customs, however, “hurt the dignity of women.”

One of these traditions is that women must give birth in the community, often in life-threatening conditions.

The maternal mortality rate in Chiapas and Guerrero, two states with the largest indigenous population in the country, is 99.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with the national average of 62.6 per 100,000 live births, according to 2005 figures from the National Women´s and Population Policies Forum, an umbrella group of civil society organizations.

Inchin notes that the Chiapas state government has made it a crime to prohibit women from receiving medical attention outside of their communities, whether it is a community authority, their husband or relative.

After their 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas passed a law, currently recognized by the state government, that recognizes women´s ability to hold community offices, work and receive a just salary, decide the number of children they want, sexual rights, and access to health care and education and the prohibition of any abuse, a framework for the minimum essential rights indigenous women should be afforded.

— Miriam Ruiz *Latinamerica Press*.