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Machismo and women’s rights in Bolivia


tumblr_m8pndpBD8g1rckegho1_500By India Thorogood

I have just spent two weeks working with Strengthening Families, a project of Aldeas Infantiles SOS, in La Paz.

Gender inequality is unfortunately evident to most in Bolivia. It was even part of our in-country induction.

As an example, one colleague told us how she had seen a husband beating his wife in the middle of a street.

When she stepped in, telling the man to stop, the wife only affirmed her husband’s right to beat her – and told her to mind her own business.

Womankind’s research found that 64.1 per cent of women in Bolivia are survivors of one form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

To make it worse, according to Aldeas, the wife who faces violence and oppression often inflicts the same on her children in frustration.

It is not only violence that effects Bolivian women but a staggering lack of legal rights and education: 19.35 per cent of women are illiterate – as opposed to 6.95 per cent of men.

This means women are less able to get work and gain financial independence.

A more important factor in a lack of economic independence is a woman’s role as a mother.

Motherhood is integral to the image of a woman – with abortion illegal – yet maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world.

Many women die as a result of illegal abortions in Bolivia, and of course, abortion is a class issue too.

As Maria Galindo of Mujeres Creando, the biggest feminist movement in Bolivia, said, “White young women, if they have four hundred dollars they can get an abortion.

“The indigenous, poor young women who don’t have the money get an abortion with a big risk, and they die.”

Bolivia is seen by many to have a progressive leader in Evo Morales, its first indigenous president.

And it is true that women’s rights have progressed under his leadership.

He appointed a government in which women are equally represented for the first time in the country’s history.

However, he is still very much apart of ‘machismo’ – he once said that eating chicken caused homosexuality.

Women were central to bringing ‘Evo’ to power in 2006 – as a part of the demonstrations and road blocks that lead to big political change in the country.

But though they’ve proved they can be as powerful as their male counterparts, they are still maligned and often powerless within their own families.

There is still a very, traditional, patriarchal image of women in Bolivian society – even in its new laws.

A form of child benefit for every expectant woman has been established by the state. Woman equals motherhood right?

Even so, the law in itself would not be a problem, but the poorest mothers in Bolivia do not have the means (eg identity papers) to receive this money.

Recently I attended a community meeting at one of Aldeas’s children’s centres. Although it was a packed room, I sighed as I counted only one man in attendance.

Volunteering at the children’s centres, I notice the girls playing with babies and even a dust pan and brush whereas the boys make guns from any inanimate object.

When I catch myself ‘feministing’, I remind myself it will be a long process to change long established gender roles. And in the UK, too.

It’s the abuse that it is harder to ignore, however.

Aldeas Infantiles tells us charities often struggle to help women because of a certain degree of community justice. Shockingly, a man who rapes a women can often pay a sum to her family to clear him of guilt.

Aldeas’s project Strengthening Families aims to raise awareness about sexual health, HIV and smear tests. A British charity, International Service, helps implement this.

Sexual health may not strike you immediately as a way to empower women. But machismo often means men make the decisions about contraception.

They may even prevent their wives from seeing gynaecologists because they are likely to be male.

By taking good care of their children in nurseries, we get a rare opportunity to provide women with information that is important for their own lives and bodies.

It’s a tough task in a predominantly Catholic country.

There are other groups too who are looking out for Bolivian women.

Most importantly, there are groups of Bolivian women who are empowering themselves. And that surely is the only way change can come in Bolivia. Not from Evo, but from women themselves.

Ten women now sit in government.

Pro-choice movements are becoming more common.

And Mujures Creando promotes feminism through a range of often cultural methods, a radio show and a documentary about violence against women.

This week I begin working on a community greenhouse project in El Alto.

The project means mothers can feed their children healthy food, cheaply.

And it is also possible that by selling vegetables they will be able to gain some degree of economic independence.

This could go a long way – giving the women self-worth, not to mention a better chance of leaving their husbands if they are faced with violence.

A chance to empower women in Bolivia.

Before I arrived in Bolivia, I had heard of another means of empowering Bolivian women.

This was ‘cholita’ wrestling’.

Cholitas are women in traditional dress, usually wearing long skirts and even longer plaits in their hair.

Recently I watched as glamorous wrestlers entered the ring – but cholita wrestling was not empowering.

The women took on men alright, but they lost – to cheers from the crowd.

And one woman’s comeback only occurred when the referee stepped in to protect her.

Although it was a staged fight, I can’t help but think this says something deeper.

That Bolivian women cannot wait for a saviour.

As Mujures Creando have scribbled on a Coachabamba wall: “Neither God, nor master, nor husband nor party”.

Machismo in Bolivia should be fought by the women themselves.

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