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Health of indigenous peoplesSource: The World Health Organization
Who are indigenous peoples?
There are an estimated 370 million indigenous peoples living in more than 70 countries worldwide. They represent a rich diversity of cultures, religions, traditions, languages and histories; yet continue to be among the world's most marginalized population groups. The health status of indigenous peoples varies significantly from that of non-indigenous population groups in countries all over the world.
An official definition of "indigenous" has not been adopted by the UN system due to the diversity of the worlda€™s indigenous peoples. Instead, a modern and inclusive understanding of "indigenous" has been developed and includes peoples who:
In some regions, there may be a preference to use other terms such as tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi and janajati. All such terms fall within this modern understanding of "indigenous".1
"Indigenous peoples remain on the margins of society: they are poorer, less educated, die at a younger age, are much more likely to commit suicide, and are generally in worse health than the rest of the population". (Source: The Indigenous World 2006, International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), ECOSOC Consultative Status, p10)
Indigenous concept of health and healing
Health is defined in WHO's Constitution as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This definition extends beyond the traditional Western biomedical paradigm which treats body, mind and society as separate entities and reflects a more holistic understanding of health. Indigenous peoples have a similar understanding of health, as well-being is about the harmony that exists between individuals, communities and the universe.
In all regions of the world, traditional healing systems and Western biomedical care co-exist. However, for indigenous peoples, the traditional systems play a particularly vital role in their healing strategies. According to WHO estimates, at least 80% of the population in developing countries rely on traditional healing systems as their primary source of care.2
"Children born into indigenous families often live in remote areas where governments do not invest in basic social services. Consequently, indigenous youth and children have limited or no access to health care, quality education, justice and participation. They are at particular risk of not being registered at birth and of being denied identity documents." (Source: United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Fourth Session, UN Document E/C.19/2005/2, Annex III, Item 13)
Overt or implicit discrimination violates one of the fundamental principles of human rights and often lies at the root of poor health status. Discrimination against ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups in society both causes and magnifies poverty and ill-health.
The UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance encouraged States to adopt action-oriented policies and plans, including affirmative action, to ensure equality, particularly in relation to access to social services such as housing, primary education and health care.8
"Information and statistics are a powerful tool for creating a culture of accountability and for realizing human rights" (Source: United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2000, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 10.)
Statistical data on the health status of indigenous peoples is scarce. This is especially notable for indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. To bridge this information gap, it is important that data is disaggregated based on variables relevant to indigenous peoples such as ethnicity, cultural and tribal affiliation, language and/or geography.
With improved information on indigenous peoples' health, action can be taken to ensure access to culturally appropriate health care, as well as to safe and potable water, adequate housing and health-related education.9
For more information
WHO Media centre
1 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Fifth Session, Fact Sheet 1: Indigenous Peoples and Identity.
Source: The World Health Organization