Last month, La Ceiba, Honduras, hosted the first ever World Summit of Afro-Descendants—a gathering of over 1,000 people from 44 countries in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. The Organización de Desarrollo Étnico Comunitario and the International Civil Society Committee organized the event to commemorate the United Nations and Organization of American States’ International Year for People of African Descent.
Throughout the city, summit posters and signs were everywhere. It seemed as if the gathering was finally affording Afro-Hondurans overdue recognition. Opening ceremony speakers included Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, government representatives, and the mayor of La Ceiba, among others. They spoke out against discrimination and stressed the need to work collaboratively to promote greater inclusion.
But a counter assembly outside of the summit grounds led by the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña painted a different picture. Organizers argued that despite the rhetoric of inclusion, many members in the Afro-Honduran community felt excluded from the summit and that participation had been limited to international delegations and select Hondurans.
The summit raised a fundamental question: how can we bring together participants from the region to discuss issues of representation for Afro-Descendants, while at the same time fail to address the issues faced by local Garifuna communities, such as the impact of Model Cities? Were the organizers perpetuating the very problem they were seeking to tackle?
Indeed, the cultural and institutional invisibility of the Afro-Descendant population in the Americas was an overarching theme of the summit. This is a particular challenge in countries where black identity does not form part of the collective national identity. If a state does not know how many, where, and in what condition Afro-Descendants live, how can it formulate a public policy agenda to serve these communities?
For women, the effects of this invisibility are even more pronounced. Increased marginalization stemming from racial and gender disparity has led to extreme exclusion from the political process, pervasive poverty, and displacement from lands traditionally inhabited by Afro-Descendants, with little to no chance of return or reparations.
Members of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean Women, and Diaspora Women called for a reconceptualization of how violence against women manifests itself in Afro-Descendant communities. Beyond being particularly vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence and human trafficking, Afro-Descendant women face unequal access to health care, employment and education.
For example, Afro-Descendant women in Brazil are given less anesthesia during childbirth, compared to non-black Brazilians. This, they argue, constitutes a form of violence against women: a systematic denial of equal opportunity and access to state resources and services.
Unfortunately, figures that measure a populations’ access to social services rarely disaggregate race and gender. This makes the task of informing public policies and devoting a state’s human and financial resources to minority issues difficult. According to Minority Rights Group International, for instance, Venezuela has not collected information about its Afro-Descendant population since 1920. Coupled with a lack of political representation, Afro-Descendants’ needs are rarely a priority for lawmakers.
Impassioned speakers, such as Juan de Dios Mosquera of the Movimiento Nacional Cimarrón, argued that without an alternative political movement and representation outside of traditional political parties, Afro-Descendants will never see change. Despite the existence of offices or secretariats devoted to Afro-Descendants in several countries, such as the Department of Ethnic Affairs in Colombia or the Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality in Brazil, there is a prevalent view that these populations lie outside of the conventional social fabric of Latin America.
To many Afro-Descendant specialists, political and social inclusion begins with a comprehensive identification mechanism. That’s why a central demand of the international Afro-Descendant movement is the incorporation of accurate, encompassing questions on race, ethnicity, language and territory questions in each country’s census. But deciding which terms to use is itself a challenge, due to diversity within black populations and the evolving lexicon referring to minority populations in each country. In Colombia for example, negro, palenquero, raizal and, more recently, Afro-Colombiano, are all terms used in the census to refer to Afro-Descendants. In countries where indigenous populations are prominent, such as in Mexico and Guatemala, the existence of Afro-Descendants is unknown to, or denied by, most people within and outside of the country.
Countries must ensure that autoidentification questions are part of the next round of censuses in the region. In doing so, states can begin taking steps to address the history of marginalization of Afro-Descendant communities, while at the same time challenging the idea that Afro-Descendants have not been integral to the economic, cultural, and political development of the region. Ultimately, this is not a question about them, it is a question of constructing an inclusive view of us.
Melissa Morales is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She works for the Latin America and the Caribbean Program at Vital Voices Global Partnership, a leading international organization dedicated to promoting women’s leadership around the world based in Washington DC.
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