UN Volunteer in service

Afro-descendants speak up: "Our efforts count double if they are collective"

"Having Afro-descendant women and men serving as volunteers turns us into references for those who are and those who’re going to come," comments Glenda Joanna Wetherborn. Glenda is a UN Volunteer of Afro-descent serving as Human Rights and Gender Expert for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Guatemala. Together, she and two fellow Afro-descendant volunteers share their experience tackling inclusion and discrimination. 

The diversity of cultures and identities is a stamp of the Latin America and Caribbean region. On United Nations Day, we recognize the efforts of the UN system, and the UN Volunteers who work therein, to implement solutions that are inclusive, innovative and respectful.

The discrimination, exclusion and structural racism towards Afro-descendant people and communities signifies enormous gaps of social inequality. This translates into limited rights, lack of access to basic goods and services, and less favourable conditions for profiting from development and living a vida digna (dignified life). --Glenda Joanna Wetherborn, UN Volunteer Human Rights and Gender Expert with OHCHR, Guatemala

The Afro-descendant population also shares the burden of stereotypes and prejudices based on social misconceptions.

"Women suffer pain and physical sickness due to social misconceptions, like the sun doesn’t burn them, they are stronger or they don’t get ill," shares Diana Torres Gusman, a UN Volunteer of Afro-descent serving in Territorial Support for the Pro-Defendant Programme of UN Women in Colombia.

In Colombia, the situation has worsened due to the conflict.

Black women suffer the most. Their husbands and sons are killed, they are displaced and impoverished, and, in the midst of this, they have to raise their voice and become social actors to defend their own rights. It’s a heavy burden. --Diana Torres Gusman, UN Volunteer with UN Women, Colombia

The personal experience of Soleir Valecillos Alza, UN Volunteer and Afro-descendant serving as Community Monitor for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Venezuela, is an example of this.

I have worked since I was 14 years old. I was the head of the family and caretaker of my mother, while studying in the university. This is the reality of many women who live in poverty and struggle to achieve their goals. --Soleir Valecillos Alza, UN Volunteer Community Monitor with OCHA, Venezuela

According to 2018 figures of the World Bank, 1 out of 4 people identify as Afro-descendent, forming the biggest minority with 133 million people. Some 91 per cent live in Brazil and Venezuela, with 7 per cent in Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador and México. However, they have 50 pre cent more chances of living in chronic poverty than white people, negatively impacting their chances of social mobility.

In Guatemala, there are 47,176 Afro-descendants and Garifúnas, a mixed African and indigenous people, that face vulnerability (National Census Guatemala). In Uruguay, they are 14 and 24 per cent less likely to finish primary and secondary school.

Of the total number of homicide victims in Brazil in 2017, 75 per cent were Afro-descendent. Furthermore, young Afro-descendants from 15 to 29 years of age have twice the chances of being murdered than white adolescents of the same age (Afro-descendant childhood and adolescence in Latin America, UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2021.

How can we reduce these gaps in facilitating access to a vida digna? Part of the solution is to promote diversity and inclusion in teams to build solutions based on interculturality.

Diana, Glenda Joanna, and Soleir have a long professional trajectory that contribute to the representation and the claim of Afro-descendants within and outside the UN.

The absence of Afro-descendant people in spaces of power means that their agendas and priorities are not taken into account.  We may work with empathetic and sensitive people in our teams, but, ultimately, our experience and identity may be overlooked if we are not represented. --Glenda Joanna Wetherborn

"We know that our efforts count double if they are collective, so inviting my colleagues to reflect was fundamental for me," Diana shares. With UN Women Colombia, she facilitated a workshop to discuss what it means to be an Afro-descendant woman serving with the UN.

"In these initiatives, we encounter black and indigenous women and can connect as peers due to the understanding and trust between us. In order to not leave anyone behind, is necessary to empower those whose voice was taken," Diana comments.

"People need people to move forward. Thus, my biggest contribution is to show every Afro-descendant girl that a women with curly hair like theirs can achieve what they have always dreamt of," Soleir concludes.