Mirian Masaquiza Jerez benefited from a unique upbringing in a Quichua family of women. Today, at 28, she works in the United Nations to ensure young indigenous voices are heard.
Mirian Masaquiza Jerez, a Quichua woman from Ecuador, has worked since 1998 with the Confederación Nacional de Campesinas, Indigenas y Negras del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Ecuadorians, and Rural Organizations, FENOCIN). She is currently the associate social affairs officer for the Secretariat of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
My mom was the first teacher and my grandfather, Luis Jerez, was the leader of my community, Salasaca, in Ecuador. I always wanted to be like my grandfather. When I decided to study at the university in Quito, my mother was the first person who helped me before the Hanns Seidel Foundation gave me a scholarship to achieve my studies. When I told her I had the opportunity to go to the United States to study English at Seattle University, she cried and said, "You have to go and study even if I have to sell everything here." Fortunately, I met generous people, Richard and Craig Boly and the Byrne family, who made my stay in Seattle possible. I also benefited from the support and advice of all of my aunts and my grandmother, because in my family, the women are resolute. They have finished college, and now all of them are teachers.
I first came to the United Nations through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights indigenous fellowship program. I was in Geneva for five months in 2001 with four other indigenous people—one from Australia, one from Namibia, one from Thailand, and one from Botswana. Before I arrived, I didn’t know there were so many different indigenous peoples around the world, or that the United Nations had programs for indigenous peoples. We learned about the different U.N. agencies and that there were people at the international level who were really trying to do something for indigenous people. But in our home communities nobody knew about these things. I am happy that my organization, FENOCIN, and others are working at the local and national levels trying to improve the standards of living for indigenous peoples. But it’s important that someone like me, an indigenous person who came from an indigenous community, can learn how to engage international processes.
When my fellowship ended, I represented FENOCIN at United Nations meetings. In 2001 I went to New York to help with the preparations for the first session of the Permanent Forum. By the third session I was a staff member of the Permanent Forum secretariat.
It has been a challenge. When I talk to people in U.N. corridors or at international meetings, they assume I am not indigenous. When they learn about my background they often seem amazed, as if they had not realized that an indigenous person could work at the United Nations, or help coordinate international meetings. If I were to do something wrong it would not only reflect on me or on women—it would reflect on all indigenous peoples.
Education opens the door for all indigenous people, men and women, to have a stronger voice. Through education we learn our rights. Then we can demand their respect and implementation. That is why governments do not give money for education. They know that if we open our eyes we will ask them to respect our rights. What happens at the United Nations can affect the policies of our government. We, as indigenous peoples, have to be educated so that we are prepared to take part in these discussions.