News / Africa

Indigenous Peoples Have More Health Problems

Mbororo children in Cameroon. Credit: Emma Eastwood / MRG
Mbororo children in Cameroon. Credit: Emma Eastwood / MRG


  • Listen to De Capua report on indigenous peoples study

Joe DeCapua
A new report says the world’s minorities and indigenous peoples suffer more ill health than other segments of the population. It says decades of marginalization, poverty and displacement have led to profound health inequalities.

Minority Rights Group International has released its annual report: State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. 

“The right to health, as you know, is a precondition for all other rights. It’s essentially the right to survive. We found that health outcomes generally are far worse for minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide,” said Carl Soderbergh, the group’s director of policy and communications.

He said no one region is worse than another.

“We see this right across the board whether we’re talking about Roma in Europe with higher infant mortality rates to indigenous communities and Afro-descendant in the Americas. Indigenous children in Guatemala, for example, suffer chronic malnutrition nearly twice the rate of majority children. In South Asia, also, we see high child malnutrition rates among the Dalit community -- and in many countries in Africa, also, worse health indicators for minorities and indigenous peoples,” he said.

Soderbergh said the report cites the main cause of marginalization.

“Essentially, it boils down to one word – exclusion. That minorities and indigenous peoples do not get to be involved in the design and implementation of major national healthcare initiatives. For example, very often healthcare campaigns are not conducted in minority or indigenous languages. This is a particular problem we’ve seen in Africa.”

He gave an example of exclusion in Namibia.

“We understand that no health campaigns have been conducted in the San indigenous languages. And so therefore San communities are excluded from the very vital knowledge about HIV/AIDS prevention. That’s just one example, but there are many right across the continent,” he said.

The Minority Rights Group International report says that loss of land and displacement have contributed to poor health.

“First of all,” he said, “it exacerbates the poverty level of minority and indigenous communities. So, they may not be able to afford, if they are sick, the transport costs to get to healthcare clinics. They may not be able to afford the fees when they arrive. And also, very crucially, they’ll lose access to the traditional medicines that they have learnt about, over the centuries, and used.”

Soderbergh added, for example, the Batwa people of the Great Lakes region have suffered major displacement. But the communities that still had access to traditional medicines seemed to fare better than those who did not.

According to the report, some cultural practices are also affecting the health of minorities and indigenous peoples. It names early marriage and female genital mutilation as major risk factors.

“These two practices in particular the increase the risk of something called obstetric fistula, which is a gynecological problem that can be deadly if not treated. And certainly leads to the exclusion of minority and indigenous women, who have this problem,” he said.

Obstetric fistula can occur during prolonged hard labor in childbirth. A fistula is a hole or tear between the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina. It leaves a woman incontinent and often shunned by the community because of the odor.

Minority Rights Group International said minority and indigenous communities must be involved in the design and implementation of health care initiatives. It calls on the U.N. General Assembly to hold meaningful consultations on the issue. The United Nations is scheduled to hold a summit on indigenous peoples late next year.

Soderbergh warned that any programs that replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals are “doomed to fail unless discrimination towards minorities and indigenous peoples is urgently addressed.”

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