Indigenous women around the world are not only front-line victims of climate change, they are also taking the lead on climate action.
Women make up roughly 50% of our global population but still face significant human rights challenges, including some which are less visible but equally damaging such as gender bias in institutions like the media. Cassie, our Women’s Section Editor, reminds us of the women’s rights issues that were important to us in 2019.
Claudia Nussbaumer continues her series, ‘Gender roles in indigenous communities,’ by looking at Saami gender roles, its change with the arrival of Christianity and the 1970s Saami feminist movement.
The Saami are a Finno-Ugric people inhabiting Sápmi, a large area to the north of modern-day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Historically, they have been known in English as ‘Lapps’ or ‘Laplanders.’ However, these terms can be perceived as derogatory. They have never been a single community in a single region of Lapland. Today’s estimated population is between 80,000-100,000.
In traditional Saami culture, women hold a certain amount of prestige due to being the primary caretaker of children. They are responsible for passing culture down through the generations and also ensure the family’s survival. Another important aspect is the making of clothes, especially vital for survival in such a harsh climate. These responsibilities and the esteem in which they are held within society indicate a matriarchal element to Saami culture.
However, Saami women themselves have spoken up about the influence Christianity has had on gender roles. Kristi Paltto argues that Christianity has made women subservient as it teaches that women should be men’s servants. Saami author, Magga Lukkari partially agrees with this statement. Lukkari claims that while Saami women are in a worse position than before, they are not as oppressed as women in the Western world. She further explains: “The position of a woman has been so important in a society based on an extended family that several generations will pass before Saami women are in the same position as Western women here.”
In connection with this is the Saami shamanistic religion, which recognises a variety of gods. The most important god for women is Mattarahkko, the primeval mother. This god also has three daughters who help women through different stages of their life. The presence of female deities in traditional Saami religion is more evidence for the regard women are held in Saami society.
The Saami feminist movement came into existence for a number of reasons: the effects of modernisation; gender disparity within society at large; and specifically, female reindeer herders demanding equal labour rights. Moreover, there was a constructed perception of what it meant to be a Saami woman. Even though it was the image of a strong, decisive mother, it limited and pressured women into a niche gender role.
The Saami feminist movement happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s when women globally began to address stereotypes, economic injustices, and the concept of gender roles. The oppression faced by Saami women is twofold as they experience oppression based on both gender and ethnicity, inside and outside their communities.
What is important to mention is that feminism didn’t reach all Saami women. Many Saami women felt that conversations around gender roles and feminism portrayed them as victims, and so, refrained in engaging in liberation efforts. Furthermore, there was no interaction between mainstream feminist organisations and indigenous groups on the issue- preventing a population-wide uprising from taking root.
Despite this, the 1988 Nordic Council’s Women’s Conference marked a significant step forward for Saami women. Many Saami decided to band together and form their own women’s organisation, Sarahkka. This organisation focused not only on women’s issues but also indigenous problems, such as land and water rights.
Mary Coogan talks to Seán Farrell, the Head of Trócaire’s International Division, about his career in development to date, and his advice for those aspiring to work in the sector.
Can you tell us about your current role and what it involves?
I am the Director of the International Division and manage our development and humanitarian work across 23 countries. I love the role in terms of working with our staff in many parts of the world and our partners who often work in difficult circumstances. I also represent Trócaire extensively in various fora in Ireland and elsewhere and it’s constantly great to meet people in Ireland who support our work.
What initially lead you to look for work with Trócaire?
Trócaire has great memories for me as a child with the Trócaire box and the Fast in secondary school. Before joining Trócaire I spent some time volunteering with orphans and refugees in Romania. I then spent 3 years as a volunteer working with the Columbans in the Southern Philippines. During that time I worked on the rights of indigenous people and on land rights. I lived in rural communities and worked with farmers who were struggling to access land that had been their ancestral land for generations.
“The situations that people live in are not just about poverty but are often about power”
Working on issues such as land rights and seeing first hand the abuses that people suffer on a daily basis motivated me to work in this field, and specifically to work with an organisation like Trócaire that has a core value of Justice.
A lot of the work I did in the Philippines made me realise that the situations that people live in are not just about Poverty but are often about Power. That was why I decided to work as a volunteer with Trócaire in 1999 while undertaking a Masters in UCD. The organisation’s strong justice message and approach of tackling the underlying causes as well as the symptoms was where i felt the real challenge of development lay.
How did you get from your first role with Trócaire to your current role?
I have held a number of positions in Trócaire since 1999 and all of them have been challenging and rewarding in their own way. Between 2000 and 2006, I worked in the Ireland Division in Education and Campaigns and on the Lenten Campaign.
From 2007 to 2013 I was the Country Director for Trócaire in Uganda and have been the Country Director for Trócaire in Zimbabwe for the past 2 years. Just recently I became the Director of our International Division so essentially my life has changed in terms of working deeply in one country to having an oversight of so many.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your career? And the most challenging one?
When I first set foot on the streets of Bucharest in the summer of 1992, I thought I would do this work for 6 months. But that experience and my time in the Southern Philippines changed and shaped me as a person. Since then, the places and faces have changed, but my passion and belief in the work has never wavered. I have spent the last 8 years in Uganda and Zimbabwe with Trócaire and I see daily the impact of our work and have the privilege to work alongside people fighting poverty and fighting the abuses that power gives rise to.
Every time I sit under a mango tree in the blazing African heat and listen to women talk about trying to overcome violence or sit with poor farmers trying to eke a living from lands damaged by the impact of a changing climate, those moments are the both the most rewarding and the most challenging. They are rewarding when we can play a part in working with people for change, but they are challenging in that so much more needs to be done to make our world a better place.
What character traits and professional skills do you think are required to be an international development worker?
Commitment, passion, empathy and a belief that change is possible. Flexibility is also a necessity. I have found myself challenged by a busy work load and always trying to do more for the communities we work with while at the same time having a family who also need time and attention. So making priorities each day is necessary.
What’s your next step in your career?
I have never seen any of the roles I have had in 23 years working in development as a career or as a job. For me it has always been more of a life choice and I look back at that time in 1992 and think how fortunate I was at such a young age to find something that would shape my whole life.
The role of Director of the International Division with Trócaire is a busy and challenging one. But it’s a role that gets me jumping out of bed every morning looking forward to the day. For me that’s the essence. It’s never been about a career or a particular job – it’s always been about trying to make a difference wherever I have found myself.
What advice would you give to someone looking to build a career in international development?
We are enablers. That is what we do and the answers to the problems we face in our world lie in the places that we work in. To think about working in such a role, find a place to volunteer at community level and be privileged to walk in the footsteps of those who very often are cast off and ignored by the society they live in.
Experience this and it will either be an experience that you will remember for many years no matter what direction your life or career takes, or it will mould and shape your life. That is the danger and the hidden beauty. You may never want to do anything else, and the struggle against poverty and injustice may well be where you meet your life’s calling!
Author: Mary Coogan
Mary is originally from Co Wicklow and holds an MSC in International Development from UCD. She previously volunteered in Ghana and South Africa. Mary worked in overseas volunteering roles with Suas and VSO before joining the Trócaire team this year.