Putting an end to the racial divide

Mar 21, 2014

Afro-Uruguayan women are lagging behind: few of them hold important positions in the public and private sectors, sayd UNDP's report. Foto: ANDRÉS CRIBARI/UNDP

Around 30 percent of the Latin America and Caribbean population is of African descent. Even though citizens of African ancestry comprise more than half of the population in countries like Brazil, throughout the region they still face discrimination and experience disproportionate levels of poverty and social exclusion.

Although poverty and inequality have been declining in the region in the past decade, 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Among the most vulnerable citizens are those of African ancestry, indigenous peoples, many of them women and youth, who still lag behind, according to UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) recent studies.

The representation of people of African descent and indigenous peoples in parliaments and other decision-making bodies is still very limited in the region. Moreover, in recent years, there has been a worrying downward trend in levels of voter turnout among people of African descent, indigenous peoples and youth.

"Despite the existence of national legal frameworks and the establishment of various institutions to ensure their rights, the application of laws and regulations are still weak," said Gerardo Noto, who heads UNDP's democratic governance unit for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"More needs to be done to recognize their political and cultural values, aspirations and lifestyles, leaving behind centuries of cultural invisibility, social and economic exclusion and partial citizenship," Noto added.

In his message for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated 21 March, UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon called on all people, especially political, civic and religious leaders, to strongly condemn messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred as well as those that incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Indeed leaders play a key role in combatting racism, as this year’s International Day stresses. UNDP  is working with governments and civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean to bridge the gap and tackle this lingering, yet urgent challenge in a region still suffering from the legacy of centuries of slavery—and a historical lack of targeted policies to address such social, racial and economic gaps.

Boosting the political participation of citizens—especially those of African descent, indigenous peoples and women—is a key pillar of UNDP’s work in the region. Through regional and country-based programmes, UNDP has been promoting reports to map these challenges, an initiative supported by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by the European Commission.

We found out that in Uruguay, for example, less than one percent of the country’s top positions in the public and private sectors are held by people of African descent, according to our report “Socio-economic situation and political and leadership map of Uruguayans of African Descent” (in Spanish) launched in November 2013. Comprising nearly eight percent of the total population, almost three in ten Afro-Uruguayans live in poverty and nearly half of them live in poor dwellings. Moreover, the unemployment rate for Afro-Uruguayan women is 12 percent, compared to the average eight percent unemployment rate for all other women.

Another report, launched in Panama stressed that discrimination—in the private and public realms—is the first barrier to the Afro-Panamanians’ social and economic development. The Afro-Panamanian population perceives that discrimination within the educational system is a key barrier which also affects their future job opportunities, according to the report “Perceptions and self-perceptions of Afro-Panamanian population: Identity and Development" (in Spanish)  launched in December 2013.

UNDP and partners also brought together more than 40 women MPs of African descent in the region, as well as decision-makers and international organization experts to boost political participation among people of African descent—particularly women who are even more under-represented. The forum took place in Panama in August 2013 and created the region’s first network of women politicians of African descent.

Moreover, the youth-targeted platform Juventud Con Voz (Voices of Youth, in English), an initiative run by young Latin American women and men—many of them of indigenous and African descent— is boosting young peoples’ leadership skills, encouraging political participation and helping them voice their concerns in important regional summits, also involving them in the Post-2015 Agenda discussions. This initiative is a partnership with the Ibero-American Youth Organization, supported by the Spanish Cooperation Agency.

As the UN Secretary-General stressed, this is the first International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination following the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela. And as Madiba said: “To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

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