Tribal Heroines

Picture © Matilda Temperley /


For International’s Women Day on the 8th of March I profiled the pictures and stories of inspiring tribal women around the world who are fighting for their fundamental human rights.

Tribal women have known brutal displacement, fear, murder and rape at the hands of invaders, for decades. They have suffered humiliation by governments that perpetuate the idea that they are somehow ‘backward’ or ‘stone age’.

They have seen their lands taken from them, their self-respect annihilated and their futures become uncertain.

Yet despite their suffering, the resistance of many tribal women is growing. Survival International’s photographic gallery to celebrate International Women’s Day, backed by Survival Ambassadors actress Gillian Anderson and jeweller Pippa Small, reflects not only the many tragedies that tribal women have endured, but also profiles some of the courageous and inspiring women who are fighting for their lands to be returned to them and for their fundamental human rights.

Picture © Steve Morgan/
Picture © Steve Morgan/


A Nenets woman outside her chum (tipi) in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula. Her homeland is a remote, wind-blasted place of permafrost, serpentine rivers and dwarf shrubs; the reindeer-herding Nenets people have migrated across it for over a thousand years.

During the winter, the women endure temperatures that plummet to -50C. This is when most Nenets graze their reindeer on moss and lichen pastures in the southern forests, or taigá. In the summer months, when the midnight sun turns night into day, the women pack up camp and migrate north with their families.

Today, their ways of life are severely affected by oil drilling and climate change. Their migration routes are now affected by the infrastructure associated with resource extraction; roads are difficult for the reindeer to cross and they report that pollution threatens the quality of the pastures.

The reindeer is our home, our food, our warmth and our transportation, said a Nenets woman.

Picture © Jason Taylor/Survival International
Picture © Jason Taylor/Survival International


To be a Dongria Kondh woman of the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha state, India, is to be intimately connected to one’s homeland; they have lived successfully in the lush forested hills with their perennial streams and giant jackfruit trees for millennia. They call themselves Jharnia, or, protectors of streams.

For the past 10 years Dongria Kondh women have been standing shoulder to shoulder with Dongria men to protect Niyamgiri against devastating plans by Vedanta Resources to construct an open-pit bauxite mine on their most sacred mountain, Niyam Dongar, the ‘mountain of law’. At one time they formed a human chain around the base of the mountain to prevent Vedanta’s bulldozers from destroying it.

In August 2010, in a victory for the Dongria Kondh and for Survival International, the Indian government found Vedanta guilty of ‘total contempt’ for the rights of the Dongria Kondh, and denied Vedanta Resources permission to mine in the Niyamgiri Hills. But an appeal that is currently in the Indian Supreme Court could yet overturn this.

The Dongria Kondh women are as defiant as ever. We will not give our forests to anybody, said one. All of the women are prepared to go to jail for this. And even if you threaten to kill us, we will carry on living here peacefully.

I will not leave my Niyam Raja until I die.


The full picture gallery can be seen on Survival International’s website.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Joanna Eede was an editorial consultant to Survival International with a particular interest in the relationship between man and nature and tribal peoples. She has created and edited three environmental books, including Portrait of England (Think Publishing, 2006) and We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (Quadrille, 2009). Joanna writes for newspapers and magazines on subjects such as the repatriation of wild Przewalski horses to Mongolia, the whales of the Alboran sea, the chimpanzees of the Mahale rainforest, uncontacted tribes of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza hunter gatherer people of Tanzania. Future ideas include a book about Tibet’s nomads.