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date: 19 October 2021

Complicating Genocide: Missing Indigenous Women’s Storiesfree

Complicating Genocide: Missing Indigenous Women’s Storiesfree

  • Ñusta Carranza KoÑusta Carranza KoSchool of Public and International Affairs, University of Baltimore


Having existed for centuries, genocide is a criminal practice that aims to destroy in whole or in part a population from a particular ethnic, racial, and religious background. The study of genocide is one that builds on historic cases of genocidal violence. Specifically, it takes on various approaches to examine genocidal crime, the intent of genocide, and how the motivation to cause physical pain and harm is knowingly implemented as a strategy of war, a tool of colonization, and a government policy of progress and modernization. Predominantly the scholarship on genocide can be summarized into three methodological approaches: (a) the theoretical that emphasizes the historic context of the crime; (b) the legal that draws from the United Nations Genocide Convention; and (c) the applied perspective that focuses on specific cases of genocide using the theoretical and legal lens. Recently, in the 21st century, genocide studies involving Indigenous populations has gained more traction as governments have been forced to recognize their own involvement in genocide, such as the forced removal of children in Canada and Australia from Indigenous families in efforts to assimilate them to the majority culture. Among this group, however, the Indigenous populations of the Americas, specifically the Indigenous women, have been further targeted for genocide more than other communities of color due to their historic relations with settler-colonial and postconquest emerging societies. The experiences of Indigenous women and their genocides involving sexual violence and coercive sterilization practices are the missing story in the genocide literature.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • World Politics

Genocide has existed for centuries. It is a kind of violence that predates the modern period and is inseparable from histories of conflicts, wars, and state formations. Studies on mass violence of antiquity explore the connections between genocidal violence and ideology, particularly that of the mass killings carried out by the Assyrians or Babylonians that were “sufficient to raise a genocidal red flag” (Kelley, 2016, pp. 26–28). The scholarship on comparative genocide studies leans more toward tracing mass violence in the modern era, removing it from biblical and historic accounts of premodern empires and their violent campaigns to wipe out peoples. Despite the differences in periodic focus, however, the genocidal victim has been targeted because of their identity and thus shares the same characteristics of people who have been marginalized and excluded on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or race.

There are multiple approaches to understanding and explaining genocide in the modern era. First, there is the contextual or theoretically abstract approach that engages in the historic debates on identity and genocide. The second approach is one that is led by the norms established by the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention. The frame of analysis strictly adheres to Article II of the Genocide Convention that defines the various crimes that constitute genocide, which include, but are not limited to, forced removal of children (Section E) and coercive sterilization practices (Section D). Finally, there is the applied approach that brings together both the contextual and legal lens and applies them to a collective group of peoples to examine their genocide—for instance, the experiences of Indigenous peoples. Within this group, the most overlooked aspect of genocide is its connection to Indigenous women’s experiences.

The stories of Indigenous peoples in the Americas and their genocides are historically contextualized as an inevitable outcome of settler-colonial and conquest-related power dynamics, where the intruding side sought to eliminate the Indigenous population to acquire lands, goods, and resources. The elimination was carried out through both physical killings and acculturation policies whereby Indigenous cultures were replaced by the intruders’ cultures—as exemplified by Canada’s residential boarding schools that separated Indigenous children from their families and indoctrinated them in Western-colonial Canadian values. These forms of genocides on the forced transfer of children, albeit being codified in Article II Section E of the UN Genocide Convention, have slowly been recognized in society and included in the academic genocide discourse.

The genocide of Indigenous women has faced an uphill battle, especially when it comes to receiving genocidal acknowledgment. The genocide literature overlooks cases involving sexual violence and coercive sterilization practices against Indigenous women. This is a subject matter that has not received much attention. The reasoning for this has to do with the understanding of the concept of genocide. While inclusive of crimes against women, the concept narrowly focuses on mass killings or cultural forms of genocide, with a disregard for gender. The gendered dynamics of a patriarchal colonial and postcolonial society subjugated Indigenous women—whose identities sit at the nexus of an excluded and marginalized gender, socioeconomic class, and ethnic minority group—to endure genocidal acts of sexual violence and coercive sterilizations. Used as a tool of war, sexual violence destroyed the creation of Indigenous families, withered away Indigenous communities, and produced new generations of children of mixed racial background. Similarly, forced sterilizations violated women’s rights and restricted women’s ability to reproduce future generations of Indigenous peoples. These acts were also intended to demoralize Indigenous men, who subsequently endured psychological trauma from the destruction of the female population. As genocide focuses on the plight of those who constitute a minority or subaltern status in society, Indigenous women represent the intersection of a sub-subaltern status of a group. Therefore, there is merit to deepening one’s understanding of genocide and further exploring the less visited cases of sexual violence and coercive sterilization practices directed at Indigenous women.1

Multiple Approaches to Genocide

Theoretical and Historical Debates on Genocide

The contextual and theoretical approach toward genocides enables a broad reading and understanding of genocide, which is relevant in examining the genocide of Indigenous women, albeit from its historic roots, genocide gained more prominence in the post-World War II context in response to the atrocities targeting people on the basis of their religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Raphael Lemkin, the jurist who set the groundwork and influenced the development of the Genocide Convention, called “genocide” a “new word” and referred to it as an “old practice in its modern development” (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). More specifically, he defined genocide as a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves” (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). Importantly, genocidal acts are directed not against individuals, but toward a collective group of peoples representing a nation. In specifying the nationhood of the people, Lemkin (1944) attached his definition of genocide to a group identifiable with an ethnic origin—equating the term with ethnocide (p. 79). The destruction of this group, Lemkin (1944) stated, also entails a killing of a “culture, language, national feelings, religion, and economic existence” (p. 1).

Scholarly contributions have encapsulated Lemkin’s (1944) views on genocide. Moses (2010) stresses the importance of carefully considering Lemkin’s ideas on genocide and not misrepresenting his writings. Noting how some scholars have assumed Lemkin’s definition on genocide suggests total mass murder of an entire ethnic group (Straus, 2001), Moses (2010) uses Lemkin’s words to explain that the total extermination of a group is “not necessary” for genocide to occur (p. 21). In fact, what matters more is the criminal intent to destroy a group and a group-centered approach for examining those who represent a single nation. In this way, the nation constitutes a homogenous entity built around a common culture that embodies people’s identity. As such, the first steps toward the physical extermination of a group or genocide always involve a “cultural genocide” or an “attack on the symbols of the group” (Moses, 2010, p. 34). Unlike other elements of Lemkin’s argument, this cultural aspect has been less stressed in the scholarship (Moses, 2010). For instance, the genocidal experiences of Indigenous peoples with forced assimilation processes—which is a form of cultural genocide—has not always been acknowledged as a case of genocide. The legacy of Lemkin’s (1944) conceptualization of genocide, in spite of its merits in developing the UN Genocide Convention, excludes groups such as Indigenous populations who face cultural genocide (Moses, 2010, pp. 39–41).

Others have developed more nuanced interpretations of the term. Jones (2006) acknowledges Lemkin’s (1944) contribution to the field, but adopts a more defined vision of genocide. For instance, he considers “mass killings to be definitional to genocide,” ruling out cases where mass killings have not occurred (Jones, 2006, p. 22). In addition, Jones (2006) problematizes what Lemkin (1944) describes as “cultural genocide” or “ethnocide,” which is linked to the idea of wiping out a culture. For Jones (2006), what matters more is the presence of mass killings rather than a debate on culture and its existence (p. 22). Whereas Jones’s (2006) approach to genocide and the number of causalities may be narrow, his views on other matters, such as the types of genocidal agents who are involved in the genocidal act, tend to be more expansive. In particular, he acknowledges that genocides can be directed by both the powerful and the powerless groups in society. For instance, Jones (2009) accepts Lemkin’s (1944) approach to genocide as being committed by state actors against minorities, suggesting a top-down directional genocide, with those in power coordinating genocidal attacks against the most vulnerable. Additionally, to Lemkin’s view, Jones (2009) proposes a “subaltern genocide,” a bottom-up directional genocide where the “oppressed” group of peoples takes a lead in committing genocide against those in power (pp. 1–3). One example of this bottom-up directional genocide is the mass uprising of Indigenous peoples in Peru during the 1780s against the Spanish, who had long exploited Indigenous populations since the 1500s. This view expands the perception of genocide as involving state agents or governments as perpetrators of violence, moving the conversation on genocide beyond a defined set of actors.

While recognizing Lemkin’s view on genocide, Powell (2007) seeks to explicate how genocide is largely a process that is shaped by peoples’ relations. Powell (2007) refers to the relational network of the “genos”—designated as race or tribe by Lemkin (1944)—that is formed through “social interactions in historical time” (p. 539). For Powell (2007), genocide is the destruction of this “genos” network. The quickest way to achieve the genocide of this network is through the “mass killing of all members of a nation” or “through a coordinated plan” aimed at the destruction of enough people to cause the collapse of a single national group (Powell, 2007, p. 534). Hence, parallel to Jones (2006, 2009), Powell (2007) also emphasizes the mass killing aspect of genocide. Mass killing is relational in the sense that the perpetrator depends on the victim because, without the victim, the perpetrator is unable to achieve their objective of genocide. Moreover, genocide is relational, as it always operates by virtue of the “identity- difference relation” (Powell, 2007, p. 542). The identity of who is not part of the group and the differences between the identity of groups shape the relations between the perpetrator and the target victim group. From this perspective, genocide is an “identity-difference relation of violent obliteration,” with the ultimate goal being to eliminate a group of peoples who are different in identity than the perpetrators (Powell, 2007, p. 542).

Related to the previously discussed explanations on the context of identity, power relations, and genocide (Jones, 2006, 2009; Powell, 2007), Shaw (2003, 2007) defines genocide as a destruction of a group identity. First, on identity, Shaw explains that killing is not the only form of genocide. For a group to be annihilated, the “way of life, social networks, institutions, and values” of a community that form a part of a group’s identity need to be targeted and attacked (Shaw, 2003, pp. 33–34). Second, Shaw (2003) argues that genocide is a recurring pattern of social conflict that involves “armed power organizations that aim to destroy civilian social groups” (Shaw, 2007, p. 154). It is an act that destroys the targeted group’s identity by way of “action in which armed power organizations treat civilian social groups as enemies and aim to destroy their real or putative social power, by means of killing, violence, and coercion against individuals whom they regard as members of the groups” (Shaw, 2007, p. 154).

Legal Approach to Genocide

Contrary to the contextual perspective on genocide that broadens the view of actors’ relations and identity, the legal approach centralizes these diverse perspectives by offering insights into framing and categorizing genocide from a set of legal norms. This perspective builds upon one of the earliest conventions, the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. To clarify, genocidal practices and responses to genocide in the form of “humanitarian intervention on behalf of populations persecuted in a manner shocking to mankind” have predated the Genocide Convention. These historic actions have involved states such as England, France, and Russia in 1827 intervening to “end the atrocities in the Greco-Turkish war” and the United States collaborating with the Sultan of Turkey to intervene on behalf of the “persecuted Jews of Damascus and Rhodes” (Kuper, 1981, pp. 19–20). Despite the existence of such international customs, the Genocide Convention was the first to establish the components of the atrocities, determine the punishment for genocidal acts, and identify which groups were protected and which were not under international law.

According to Article II of the Genocide Convention, the core considerations of genocide include the following: mass killings, infliction of serious bodily or mental harm, purposeful alternations to the conditions of life to bring about the physical destruction of a group, the prevention of births within the group, and the forcible transfer of children of one group to another group (United Nations, 1951). While the violence inflicted upon a group may be grave, to confidently determine that these acts—defined as genocide—were genocidal, a consideration of intent needs to be taken into account. Intent here refers to two types: the mens rea (the guilty mind) and the actus reus (the material facts). The nexus of the planning of the act, or the mens rea, and the application and outcome, or the actus reus, result in great numbers of deaths or infliction of violence—the necessary conditions to establish genocide. Hence, the definitions and intent are both considered in identifying and understanding genocide.

The definitions and legal norms laid out in the Convention, however, are not always apparent. In part, this is related to the vagueness of the concept of genocide, illustrated by a multitude of crimes listed under Article II (Brunn, 1993, p. 198). This idea echoes the debates that took place during the drafting of the Genocide Convention, where states such as the Netherlands questioned the meaning of what constituted cultural genocide (Lippman, 1984). Additionally, the specific intent required by the Genocide Convention as a component to distinguish genocide from other crimes allows actors to evade justice by creating a narrative of non-intent of committing genocide (Lippman, 1984). Furthermore, as proving intent of genocide is key to considering prevention or punishment of genocide, it is a serious problem if the “number of victims may be of evidentiary value with respect to proving the necessary intent” (LeBlanc, 1984, p. 582).

The broad list of crimes from the Convention can generate ambiguities in identifying the various crimes that constitute genocide. However, embracing the various types of genocidal crimes opens the potential for victims of very specific violence to be recognized under the category of genocide. For instance, under Article II Section D of the Genocide Convention, the “prevention of births within the group” is considered to be a crime of genocide. These include many cases of Indigenous women in South America who were forcedly sterilized and thus were unable to give birth to future generations of Indigenous people. Another example of an interpretation of the “prevention of births” violation is the judgment that was issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu from the time of the Rwandan genocide. Jean-Paul Akayesu was the mayor of Taba Commune on the outskirts of Kigali. He was indicted on several charges: allowing, supervising, and having had knowledge of sexual violence of minors; his complicity in genocide; crimes against humanity; and his participation in torture, murder, and other violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Specifically, on the crime of genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda issued its historic ruling on September 2, 1998, stating that “measures intended to prevent births within the group” included rape, as the “a woman of the said group is deliberately impregnated by a man of another group, with the intent to have her give birth to a child who will consequently not belong to its mother’s group” (ICTR, 1998, p. 131). This was the first judgment issued by an international criminal tribunal that defined rape, targeting a specific ethnicity, as an act of genocide. Scholars referred to this as “genocidal rape” (Russell-Brown, 2003, p. 351), elaborating on how the crime of rape was used with the intent to destroy a particular group and inflict serious “bodily or mental harm,” which is another act of genocide under Article II Section B. In other words, the “genocidal plan” and the “intent” from the state to commit genocide or the mens rea involved rape as the actus reus or the execution of such a plan (ICTR, 1998, p. 138). When sexual violence such as rape and forcibly impregnating women occurs within the conditions laid out in the Genocide Convention and causes physical or psychological injury against a group, it can be categorized as an act of genocide (Leiby, 2009, p. 450).

The legal discourse on genocide based on the Genocide Convention and its related rulings thus gives room for diverse interpretations of the legal norms of what constitutes genocide. The Convention allows for the possibility to think of conspiracy to commit the crime, the attempts to engage in the act, and complicity as constitutive of genocidal actions that are punishable (United Nations, 1951). In reflecting more upon the genocide of Indigenous women, specifically those who were coercively sterilized and others who were subject to rape as a policy of war in such states as Guatemala, the legal frame urges us to rethink and center the case on the norms discussed in the Convention.

Applied Approach to Genocide

Genocide and Indigenous Peoples

The existing scholarship on Indigenous peoples’ genocide complements the legal frame by providing new interpretative explanations of the historic and cultural roots on the genocidal acts, intent, and target group of genocide. Genocide has been a recurrent crime in the Americas. According to Hinton’s (2012) categorization of genocide studies, Indigenous peoples’ collective experiences and specific cases of their related atrocities contribute to genocide studies in two major ways: as a set of core cases from the 20th century and as part of the periphery of genocides (pp. 12–13). For example, the association of genocide with the Americas is often invoked in reference to the colonial period during which violence and conflict erupted between expansionists who sought to conquer Indigenous territories and Indigenous peoples who resisted and fought against these intruders. The colonists saw the Indigenous as nothing more than an impediment to their expansionist pursuits and thus carried out genocide acts in an attempt to eradicate the Indigenous population. Using the term “holocaust” to describe the genocide against Indigenous peoples in the Americas, Jones (2006) discusses the destructive impact of expansionism during the colonial period. Focusing more on the settler-colonial experiences, he explains how the emergence of settler colonies in North America involved the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples and occupation of their lands, which triggered violent confrontations and mass killings targeting Indigenous communities (Jones, 2006). Jones (2006) draws on the interactions between the Puritans and the Indigenous peoples to explain genocidal violence. In reacting to an “Indian raid,” the Puritans launched “a campaign to exterminate” mass populations of Indigenous peoples (Jones, 2006, p. 73). These types of common occurrences are what Jones (2006) refers to as the “dimension of genocidal massacre” that accompanied settler-colonial experiences (pp. 68–73). Similar views are echoed by Lieberman (2012), who explains how the expansion of societies and the remaking of the “maps of newly-incorporated frontier and border areas” involved genocide (p. 10).

Scholars engaging in Australian historiography also explore the genocidal dimension of Indigenous peoples’ experiences. Using terms such as “destruction,” “extermination,” and “exclusion,” they expose the violence amidst the expansion of land and settlements during the colonial period. Often discussed as the “White abuse of Aborigines,” this approach changes the view of the “peaceful settlement” of Australia by exploring the crimes committed by the state against Indigenous peoples (Moses, 2004, pp. 8–10). Genocidal policies linked with policies of “integration” targeting Indigenous peoples began from the very first days of the European occupation of Australia and continued into the 20th century. As exposed in the 1997 report Bringing Them Home, thousands of “children of mixed Indigenous/European descent” in Australia were “removed from their Indigenous mothers by state authorities” since the first days of the colonization process, “until the late 1960s” (Moses, 2004, p. 11). These were the “stolen” generations of Indigenous people who were removed from their families (van Krieken, 2004, p. 126). From the legal approach to genocide or Article II of the Genocide Convention, the forced removal of children is a form of genocide, which has manifested in Australia (Moses, 2004; van Krieken, 2004) and other settler-colonial societies such as Canada. In Australia, governments discussed plans to separate Indigenous children from their parents at either birth or the age of 2 in order to “inculcate European values”; “encourage conversion of the children to Christianity”; and distance them from “Indigenous values and lifestyle” (Wilson, 1997, pp. 23–26). These were classic methods discussed in the historic and contextual approach to genocide as “cultural genocide.” The devastating consequences of the forcible transfer of children hindered the long-term existence of the Indigenous peoples.

Despite the established argument that links genocide, settler-colonial history, and Indigenous peoples, there is pushback against painting Indigenous peoples’ history in a broad perspective of genocide. While not denying that genocide has occurred against Indigenous peoples during the process of settler-colonial interactions, scholars such as Gone (2014) and Rensink (2011) problematize the application of the term “genocide” to describe the “overarching pattern of European dispossession of Indigenous peoples throughout the history of North American contact” (Gone, 2014, p. 288). Particularly, Gone (2014) argues that the concept of genocide is “best reserved for instances of group-based mass murder” and stresses the need to rely on the conventional usage of the term and not the interpretative approach—as outlined in the various acts that constitute genocide in the UN Convention (p. 293).

This argument against labeling the colonial experience of the Indigenous population as genocidal is supported by other scholars who also resist characterizing Indigenous and settler interactions in North America as genocide. Mann (2005) examines the potential destruction of settler societies, arguing that in places such as the United States, terrible murderous cleansings resulted from the indirect “economic conflict” over the control of land (p. 72). Mann (2005) explains that colonial settlements using a concentrated labor force did not usually lead to “murderous cleansing” (p.16), though it sometimes brought ethnocide, which was an “unintended wiping out of a group and its culture” (pp. 71–72). By emphasizing the deaths as an unintentional consequence from labor practices, Mann differentiates the ethnocide of Indigenous peoples in this context from being framed as a genocide. Moreover, Mann (2005) is careful not to characterize the processes of settlers forcibly taking Indigenous peoples’ lands, which often involved mass murder as genocide.

Against the backdrop of scholarship that sets aside the bewildering array of cases and examples involving the destruction and genocide of Indigenous peoples, there is growing public consensus in the scholarship for labeling the Indigenous peoples’ experiences in North America as colonial genocide (Hinton, 2014; Jones, 2006; MacDonald, 2015; Moses, 2004; Woolford & Benvenuto, 2015). Historically, the settler societies’ expansion and settlement enabled conditions for generating genocidal massacres against the Indigenous population. These include the 1873 massacres in Cypress Hill, which involved the killings of Assiniboine peoples by Canadian and American wolf hunters returning from their hunt. More recently, in the early 21st century, the argument on genocide has centered on the cases of forced removal of children in settler societies such as Canada. The language used to categorize this genocide, as explained by Woolford and Benvenuto (2015), leans more toward the notion of cultural genocide from the cultural and theoretical approach to genocide (Lemkin, 1944; Moses, 2010). The phrase represents the “multiple and intersecting colonialisms” of complex relations in Canada (Woolford & Benvenuto, 2015, p. 379). This involves the “forced assimilation and absorption” and “biological annihilation” that have been present in historic Indigenous-settler experiences (Woolford & Benvenuto, 2015, p. 379). In other words, the Canadian Indigenous experience involves both the destruction of the group in whole or in part in addition to the destruction of culture. However, as the consequences of colonial genocide have not been restricted to a temporality of time, Woolford and Benvenuto (2015) argue that one must understand the impacts of genocide in a continuum, as they are “not temporally bound” (p. 380).

Regarding Canada’s genocide, other scholars have resorted to relying more on the legal approach of genocide by using the definitions of genocidal acts from the UN Genocide Convention (United Nations, 1951), which classifies acts as genocidal if they “[cause] serious bodily or mental harm” or involve the “forcible [transfer of] children.” Discussing the residential schooling experience in Canada, MacDonald (2014) clarifies the connection between genocide and the Indigenous experience, noting how the recognition of genocide may provide the basis for a “decolonized form of Canadian biculturalism” (p. 30). He argues that invoking genocide is important, as it changes how “historical relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers are interpreted” (MacDonald, 2015, p. 412). Bringing in the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their application of the words “cultural genocide,” which is carefully defined along the normative lines laid out in the Genocide Convention, MacDonald (2015) argues that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been able to avoid a division in society by acknowledging the victims without alienating the dominant White settler public. In settler societies still overcoming the historical atrocities that have continued to the present, a delicate balance may be needed to achieve the desired effects of justice, reparations, and recognition of crimes.

Other genocides, rooted in the broader historical context of the Americas, relate to Latin America and the Indigenous population’s period of encounter with the Spanish. Galeano (1997) describes the Indigenous peoples’ experience in the region as genocide. Noting the level of population change from roughly 70 million when the Spanish and Portuguese appeared in the region to 3.5 million a century and a half later, Galeano (1997) explains how the European empires were responsible for this outcome (p. 38). He attributes the cause as the rise of mercantilist capitalism and the supply of Latin American mines to European counterparts. To meet the growing demands of Europe, colonists enslaved Indigenous peoples and used them to establish a concentrated labor force, resulting in the plight and deaths of these Indigenous populations. In particular, the mines were the “mouths of hell” for Indigenous peoples who died in thousands every year from forced labor and were subject to terrible living and work conditions (Galeano, 1997, p. 40). Their deaths were the sacrifice that Europe needed to fulfill its economic objectives.

Galeano’s (1997) historic account of genocide is one that Lemkin also shared. Lemkin (n.d.) discusses the encounter between the Spanish and the Indigenous peoples as colonial genocide, noting the physical and cultural methods of genocides.2 The methods of physical genocide involved slavery, deprivation of livelihood, torture, killing, mistreatment, rape, and looting against Indigenous peoples and communities. Colonial missions carried out cultural methods of genocide, including the “forceful conversion” and baptism of Indigenous peoples, who were then claimed as the missions’ property (Lemkin, n.d., p. 4). Their fate was sealed, and they could no longer leave the mission. Lemkin (n.d.) attributes the responsibility “with few exceptions” to the “colonists of New Spain” and explains the rationalization that was used by the human rights violators and the response from the victims regarding the genocide (p. 1). Lemkin’s (n.d.) recognition of genocide in Latin America adds more impetus to establishing the categorization of genocide in the historic context of the Americas.

The Indigenous Women’s Experience

In both the settler-colonial and the conquest-related experiences in North America and Latin America, genocide was a recurrent presence, an unavoidable fate for the Indigenous populations that stood in the way of settler-colonial expansion and conquest. The genocides continued in different forms in the postrevolutionary era during the 1800s as states established their constitutions, expanded land jurisdiction over Indigenous territory, and wiped out Indigenous populations. However, there is a genocidal link that has gone largely unnoticed. This concerns the experiences of genocide involving Indigenous women in historic and modern times. Indigenous women’s experiences sit at the intersection of a marginalized status, as part of an ethnic group that is excluded from power and a gender that is the subaltern in a patriarchal Indigenous and colonial society. These unique identity markers have made Indigenous women vulnerable and more often the targets of genocide. The literature of genocide has overlooked the link between sexual violence and Indigenous women’s experiences. In part this is due to missing data from government agencies that “(un)intentionally turn a blind eye to the issue of gender-based violence” (Leiby, 2009, p. 451), which has thus restricted the possibility of a proliferation of research related to this subject. This section explores this linkage in more depth, discussing research from the contextual and legal approaches to genocide.

The Americas was not the only place where the treatment of Indigenous peoples—and more specifically Indigenous women—involved significant violence. Alarming evidence presented by a 1904 Royal Commission on Aboriginal conditions in Western Australia point to the abuse of Aboriginal women in the form of rape or sexual oppression by White men. From the legal framework of the Genocide Convention and the judgment issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu case from 1998, for rape to be considered a genocide, it needs to have been a systematized policy from the state with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of the population. The sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women in Australia was an “unspoken” practice from the government to “destabilize indigenous communities by diluting (from the colonists’ perspective) their identity,” and as such it had a genocidal intention (Elinghaus, 2009, pp. 67–68). Moreover, rape was linked with forced cultural assimilation practices that involved the forced removal of Aboriginal and mixed descent children, which constituted a form of genocide under Article II Section E of the Genocide Convention (Elinghaus, 2009, pp. 67–68).

What sets the cases of Indigenous women’s experiences in the Americas apart from the Aboriginal women in Australia is the recurrence of genocidal acts that spanned from the early days of the colonies to the early part of the 21st century. Indigenous women were subject to sexual violence, which was used as a tool of colonial genocide in the Americas. In his essays on Spanish colonial practices, Lemkin (n.d.) notes how Indigenous women were “violated indiscriminately,” worked as slaves for the Spanish colonists, and at times were separated from their families when they were shipped off to Europe (p. 1). Often, women were exhausted with “hunger and fatigue” and were thus unable to “nurse their babies” (p. 1). Collectively, these actions against Indigenous women contributed to the death of Indigenous children, who died of hunger and lack of care, and these repeated experiences, as Lemkin argues, resulted in the death of future generations of Indigenous peoples (Lemkin, n.d., p. 3).

Other historical works on Indigenous women’s genocides have focused on specific cases in South America. For instance, Delrio et al. (2010) discuss the genocidal policies that were pursued by the Argentinean government toward Indigenous peoples. They explain how these policies were established, with the goal of physically eliminating and destroying the culture of Indigenous peoples. Various Argentinean governments openly discussed the ending of the “primitive race,” referring to the Indigenous population, and suggested “mixing people” forcedly (implying rape) to resolve the presence of this population (Delrio et al., 2010, p. 144). The prevention of births was also channeled in policies, thus restricting reproduction rights within Indigenous groups. To this end, Delrio et al. (2010) document how military agencies imposed the separation of Indigenous men, women, and children as a “tactical means of dissuasion and repression” (p. 144). It was expected that, once separated, Indigenous women would no longer be able to give birth to a future generation of Indigenous children and thereby slowly diminish the numbers of the group. In addition, the military legitimized the rape and kidnapping of Indigenous women as “a necessity of war” (Delrio et al., 2010, p. 144). The brutalization of women’s bodies was a purposeful act with the objective of producing mixed-race children who would no longer be only of Indigenous background. This was a form of genocide accompanied by sexual violence. Through these policies of physical and cultural genocide, the governments in Argentina expected the Indigenous population to wither away from one generation to the next.

Such genocidal experiences were not restricted to historic periods of conquest and colonization. Various studies note the continued violation of Indigenous women’s rights in the modern period in the form of sexual violence during internal armed conflicts and coercive sterilization practices that systematically targeted women of Indigenous descent in the Americas (Carranza Ko, 2020; Fulchiron, 2016; Leiby, 2009; Muñoz, 2013; Stote, 2015; Yoc Cosajay, 2014). From the 1970s to 2000, internal armed conflicts and political violence from authoritarian governments plagued the region of Latin America. People of marginalized sectors of society constituted the largest group of victims, including those from low economic classes who resided in rural areas or were of Indigenous ethnic descent. Among these victimized groups, the Indigenous population was disproportionately targeted in states such as Guatemala and Peru. The identity of this victimhood was not readily linked to genocide, and the case of Indigenous women was unrecognized as a separate form of genocide. In fact, it was not until July 2004 that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that a genocide had taken place in Guatemala, referring to the 1982 massacre of the 188 Achi-speaking Maya Indigenous people in the village of Plan de Sanchez (Inter-American Court of Human Rights, 2004). The Court attributed the genocide to the Guatemalan army troops. The rapes of girls and young Achi-Maya women, however, were not included in the reasoning of genocide. Similarly, for the Sepur Zarco case involving the systematic rape and enslavement of Q’echi’-Maya Indigenous women by the Guatemalan military in a small community near the Sepur Zarco outpost from 1982 to 1983, Guatemala’s trial court (Tribunal Primero de Sentencia Penal, Narcoactividad y Delitos Contra el Ambiente) ruled that crimes against humanity had been committed. Although the legal reasoning accompanying the sentence explained that the Sepur Zarco case had elements of genocide, as rape and sexual violent acts were directed toward the Maya population with the intention to destroy in whole or in part members of the group (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2016, pp. 94–96), the sentence of Sepur Zarco was framed as crimes against humanity and not genocide.

Leiby’s (2009) scholarship on Guatemala’s truth commission (i.e., Commission for Historical Clarification [CEH]) and civil war outlines the reasons from a legal view for which there may have been difficulty labeling the sexual violence against the Maya population as genocide. The Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala found that “agents of the State of Guatemala” committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people, including acts specified in Article II Section A, B, and C of the Genocide Convention (CEH, 2013, p. 41). These include mass killings (Section A), infliction of serious bodily or mental harm (Section B), and purposeful alternations to the conditions of life to bring about the physical destruction of a group (Section C). The responsibility for these violations overwhelmingly involved agents of the Guatemalan army followed by civil patrols, military commissioners, and guerilla forces (CEH, 2013, p. 86). It was further determined that sexual violence was widespread during Guatemala’s civil war, and rape was “the most frequent form of abuse comprising 84%” of all sexual violence in Guatemala (Leiby, 2009, p. 454). The majority of the victims of sexual violence were of Mayan origin. The Historical Clarification Commission discusses sexual violence in relation to war crimes and the Common Article III of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Genocide, however, is not mentioned as being connected with sexual violence. Leiby (2009) explains that it is not clear whether sexual violence embodied genocidal intent, such as in the form of forcibly impregnating or altering the reproductive capacity of the Mayan population (p. 462), which would be more in line with the legal norms outlined in the Genocide Convention. Instead, Leiby (2009) argues that rape and sexual violence may have served to terrorize a community, which in Guatemala’s case was of majority Mayan descent.

Alternatively, Yoc Cosajay (2014), Fulchiron (2016), and Muñoz (2013) explain the violations endured by the Indigenous women from a contextual approach to genocide. They argue that the use of sexual violence carried out by the security forces systematically, massively, and deliberately targeted Indigenous women predominantly of Mayan descent during the Guatemalan internal war (1960–1996). Sexual violence in Guatemala was adopted as a conflict strategy and used by military personnel to subject, terrorize, and dismantle any type of opposition. It was, as Yoc Cosajay (2014) described, a “silenced” practice that was widely used in a patriarchal society and yet, not discussed. The objective was to massacre the “internal enemy via the women’s bodies” (Fulchiron, 2016, p. 395), to ostracize them from society with the stigma of victimhood, and to ultimately dismantle the communal solidarity among Indigenous peoples (Muñoz, 2013). Indigenous women would be stigmatized, and the silence they carried with them would further “alienate” and “fracture” the social relations within their communities (Yoc Cosajay, 2014, p. 158). These practices would lead to a long process of cultural genocide.

As studies discuss, Indigenous women in Guatemala were subject to collective rape, rape prior to the massacre of a population, rape in front of their families, sexual slavery in military camps, and, in some cases, rape by both the guerilla groups and the Guatemalan military forces. A total of 30,000 women were victims of sexual violence, of which 88.7% were women of Mayan descent. In arguing the connection with genocide, Fulchiron (2016) and Yoc Cosajay (2014) explain how the state intended to kill these women in the process of sexual violence, gravely harm their physical and mental integrity, and subject them to ill treatment that would endanger their existence and culture (Fulchiron, 2016, p. 401; Yoc Cosajay, 2014, pp. 159–160). Despite the grave nature of the crimes, these genocidal acts were excluded in history. In fact, Mayan women who were sexually violated were singled out for having “altered the societal norms of their communities” (Yoc Cosajay, 2014, p. 160). Rather than the perpetrators, the women who were victims of genocide had to face the “stigmatization of guilt” from a patriarchal Indigenous and Guatemalan society that ostracized their sufferings (Yoc Cosajay, 2014, p. 160). These societal dynamics speak to the “logic of power that makes invisible the experiences of women in history,” particularly the experiences of the Mayan women (Fulchiron, 2016, p. 393). This was a crime that reflected the colonial, racist, classist, and sexist structures of power that allowed these acts to continue during the armed conflict.

Related to Guatemala, Green (2016) continues the contextual approach to further relate the Indigenous women’s experiences to genocide by discussing the ethnic annihilation of the group as a form of exodus from the lands. Green takes a step further in characterizing the aftermath of the moments of violence endured by Indigenous women as another form of genocide. She explains how women who were subject to sexual violence suffered hostilities from their own families, which at times resulted in domestic violence against them—causing more trauma (Green, 2016, p. 57). In addition to these specific experiences of genocide, the Mayan people experienced another form of ethnic annihilation: the loss of their lands during the internal conflict (Fulchiron, 2016; Green, 2016; Muñoz, 2013). The Guatemalan government seized Mayan lands. By giving multinational companies entry into Indigenous lands, the Guatemalan government denied the Indigenous peoples’ right to land and neglected prior consultation of their lands, which had been specified in international law (i.e., ILO Convention 169). These decisions resulted in friction and violence between the government and the Mayan people, which escalated into the disappearances and deaths of Indigenous leaders by state agents (Green, 2016, p. 61). Consequently, without a land to sow, inhabit, and work—a new form of genocide that intentionally destroys the culture and identity of the Mayans—the people had to make their exodus from the region toward North America.

The stories of Indigenous women and genocides have not been restricted to periods of armed conflict. Stote (2015) explores the genocide and sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, which occurred via compulsory sterilization legislation that was enacted in Alberta and British Columbia. Particularly in Alberta, under the Sexual Sterilization Act—in effect from 1928 to 1982—2,834 sterilization operations were performed. The majority of those who were sterilized were from “socially marginalized positions,” “disproportionately . . . of Aboriginal peoples” (Stote, 2015, p. 63). With amendments to the Act, sterilizations were authorized to “any patient” defined as “mentally defective”—which was determined via IQ tests that had drastically different results for populations not accustomed to Western European standard measurements (Stote, 2015, pp. 63–64). As a result, Indigenous populations became the most prominent victims, as they were unable to score higher than others, were categorized as mentally defective, and could not object to being sterilized. In other words, they were unable to stop any coercive sterilizations or sterilizations against their will. The federal government was aware of these practices and yet, responded by “refusing to make an incrimination declaration on the subject” and stating that it was a matter that needed to be addressed within provincial law (Stote, 2015, p. 66). The case of Alberta, as Stote (2015) demonstrates, was one of many instances of sterilization practices that were performed without consent. And yet, as Stote (2015) explains, the treatment of Indigenous women in Canada is not generally considered within the context of genocide and international law (p. 20). Hence, notwithstanding the evidence Stote (2015) lays out that links the coercive sterilization with the destruction of the Indigenous population, this particular genocidal moment has been overlooked in the mainstream discourse on genocide.

The situation did not fare better for Indigenous women in the United States. As Torpy (2000) describes, thousands of Native American women were sterilized during the 1970s. Although this was a period during which many women of color were targeted for sterilization practices, Torpy (2000) notes how Native American women, due to the “many unique cultural and social realities,” became “easier targets than other minorities” (2000, p. 5). The practice went unnoticed until some individuals informed a South Dakota senator of what they suspected were possible unethical practices of coercive sterilization, after which an investigation was launched. The study found that between 1973 and 1976, over 3,406 Indigenous women had been sterilized by the Indian Health Service (HIS) (Torpy, 2000, p. 7). Given the population size of Indigenous peoples, the number of sterilizations that had been performed was significant. HIS officials often threatened these Indigenous women, claiming they would lose their already born children if they did not submit to the tubal ligation procedure. As the Indigenous population had already been “devastated by disease, inadequate health care and education, wars, removal, [and] cultural genocide through assimilation,” children served as their community’s “hope of survival” (Torpy, 2000, p. 13). Therefore, women underwent the surgery to keep their already born children. However, many children were still taken away from Indigenous women and placed in foster care or in residential boarding schools. Hence, Indigenous women suffered two forms of genocide: one that targeted their survival through the prevention of births of future generations and another that included the forced removal of children, which Torpy (2000) notes was a form of cultural genocide.

The pattern of genocide against Indigenous women involving coercive sterilizations extended to Mexico. As Bronfman and Castro (1989) explain, sterilization practices in the 1980s already targeted economically impoverished rural and urban areas. These areas, particularly those with higher concentrations of Indigenous populations (i.e., the Yucatan peninsula), registered high numbers of sterilizations—which at the time was considered the principal family planning method (Bronfman & Castro, 1989, pp. 66–68). Hence, the trend was already present from the 1980s, where sterilization practices were linked to Indigenous female populations. This link is further explored by Menéndez (2009), who notes the emergence of complaints against the state on coercive sterilization practices. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, reported that by 1993, out of the total of 2,300,000 sterilizations performed on individuals in Mexico, over a million had been sterilized against their will—without informed consent or medical consultation (Menéndez, 2009). Specifically, the state’s Program on Education, Health, and Nutrition (PROGRESA) and Program of Direct Rural Support (PROCAAMPO) were accused of conditioning and constraining Indigenous women’s access to services and money related to the programs with sterilization procedures. Despite the clear links between the intent of the state and the resulting coercive sterilization practices that selectively targeted Indigenous women, the direct reference to genocide is not present in either Bronfman and Castro’s (1989) or Menéndez’s (2009) works.

The direct connections between forced sterilization practices against Indigenous women in Mexico and genocide is established by Romero Zepeda and Ortega Marín (2017). In discussing the human rights violations targeting Indigenous peoples, Romero Zepeda and Ortega Marín (2017) document the numerous cases of coercive sterilization practices in Mexico that targeted Indigenous men and women. In 2000, 32 Indigenous women reported having been coerced and threatened to undergo sterilizations in the municipality of Ayutla de los Libres in the state of Guerrero; in 2013, 27% of Indigenous women were sterilized against their will; and in 2015 Indigenous women residing in the border area between Veracruz and Hidalgo were reported to have been pressured to accept tubal ligation (Romero Zepeda & Ortega Marín, 2017). These cases, along with the reports from domestic and international nongovernmental organizations on forced sterilizations against Indigenous women, were submitted to the Mexican state. Although the government acknowledged this was a problematic practice, a disproportionate majority of Indigenous women continued to be subject to coercive sterilizations (Romero Zepeda & Ortega Marín, 2017, pp. 937–938). In fact, rather than revise the practices of forced sterilizations, in 2014, the state publicly declared that Indigenous families with more than three children will no longer be eligible for social programs (Romero Zepeda & Ortega Marín, 2017, p. 942), imposing a control on reproductive rights and forcing Indigenous women to consider sterilization. These patterns of genocidal acts and intent were similar to the Canadian and Peruvian cases in that each context involved state health officials, the victims were of Indigenous descent, many cases were reported to government authorities, and despite the problems, the practice continued. As Romero Zepeda and Ortega Marín (2017) argue, the state failed to provide basic health rights for the Indigenous population and therefore engaged in genocidal acts and crimes against humanity (p. 942).

The experiences of coercive sterilizations were disguised as part of a family planning policy in Peru. The government’s new family planning policy from 1996 to 2001 resulted in the sterilization of 272,028 people, the majority of whom were of poor, rural, and Indigenous Quechua-speaking background. The Peruvian case sheds another important light on the continued targeting of women of Indigenous descent and genocidal policies that aimed to destroy an ethnic group, either in part or entirely. As explained by Carranza Ko (2020), this is a case of genocide that has been excluded from the literature. Studies that discuss this case regard the coercive sterilization cases as crimes of sexual violence, gender-based violence, or crimes against humanity at most. However, as Carranza Ko argues (2020), this is a case that demonstrates the genocidal elements of mens rea and actus reus, with the state’s planned intent to target Indigenous women. The state actively promoted the family planning program in rural areas inhabited by Indigenous peoples, promoted tubal ligation in Fertility Festivals, threatened those who refused the procedure, coerced others, and, in some cases, operated on women without anesthesia. The state was aware that these were “irregularities” or coerced sterilization practices, noted that they would revise the policy, did not, and continued to pursue the practice. Carranza Ko (2020) argues that these were all telling signs of genocidal acts. The selective application of coercive sterilization resulted in the destruction, in part or in whole, of a future generation of Indigenous peoples. Hence, the sterilization practice, which in itself constitutes a genocidal act according to the UN Convention, had a prolonged impact on the Indigenous population by preventing the future births of this ethnic group.

Further Reflections

In 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a report detailing the status of Indigenous women in the Americas. The report identified various concerning cases of violence directed against women, which included the Guatemalan, Mexican, and Peruvian examples previously noted in this article. Some of the cases the report explored, however, were ongoing developments that have yet to be examined by the existing scholarship on genocide. These included the situation in Colombia, where Indigenous women and Indigenous women leaders have been more victimized than other groups through sexual slavery, forced pregnancies, group rape, sexual mutilation, and killings at the hands of those participating in the armed conflict (1962–2016) (Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos [CIDH], 2017, pp. 67–68). As the IACHR explains, the propensity for Indigenous women to be exposed to these crimes relates to the discrimination and vulnerability they face in their lands and in Colombian society (CIDH, 2017, p. 68). The Commission also discussed Peru’s internal armed conflict (1980–2000) and the sexual violence that targeted Indigenous women (CIDH, 2017, p. 69). As Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission resisted in defining the link between genocide and Indigenous peoples’ sufferings, which they believed would complicate the contextualization of political violence between state agents and leftist guerilla forces, the stories of Indigenous women had been pushed aside (Carranza Ko, 2020). Despite these political debates, the IACHR argued for greater recognition, more acknowledgment, and proper reparations as compensations for Indigenous women and their sufferings.

The observations about Indigenous women from the IACHR are similar to what has been previously argued on the silencing of their stories. The violations, the Commission points out, are missing from the literature on genocide. Their forgotten experiences represent the Indigenous women’s position in society—one that has been previously mentioned—on the intersections of marginalized gender, excluded class, and minority ethnic dynamics. The overlapping categories of marginalization renders Indigenous women more vulnerable than others to human rights violations, some of which constitute genocide.

To give voice to the missing stories of these victims, establishing the link between genocide and the experiences of Indigenous women has merit in bringing to light cases that have been excluded in the literature. These include discussions on genocidal rape from a legal and contextual approach because, despite the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s 1998 ruling, Indigenous women, sexual violence, and armed conflict contexts in states such as Guatemala and Peru have not been addressed in the literature. In addition, the connection between genocide and Indigenous women’s history adds more weight to the discussion of “gendercide,” a form of genocide in which perpetrators selectively target and kill mass numbers of people on the basis of their gender.3 The sex-selective killing, involving sexual violence that predominantly impacts women or men, can lead to genocide, in whole or in part, of a group of peoples.



  • 1. While recognizing that the genocide of Indigenous men ought to be acknowledged, the scope of this article is limited to Indigenous peoples, more specifically Indigenous women.

  • 2. For more archival information on Lemkin’s writings on Spanish colonial practices involving physical and cultural genocides, the identity of “genocidists,” and case studies from Yucatan and the Aztec empire, see Lemkin (n.d.).

  • 3. For more information on gendercide, see Warren (1985) and Jones (2004).