25 de Noviembre: Alteñas de Pie
This November 25, several hundred women and girls, along with their male allies, descended on the city center of La Paz, Bolivia, from their homes and offices in El Alto. To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, integrantes of various women’s organizations, as well as many unaffiliated individuals, carried letreros and banners calling for an end to physical, psychological, and sexual violence against women and girls.
A report released in 2008 by the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 70% of women in Bolivia suffer some form of violence (La Prensa, 26/11/09, La Paz, Bolivia). In focus groups and workshops organized by the local women’s organization, el Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer (CIDEM), many women argue that violence against women in the country is somewhat accepted, or at least tolerated, because of widespread machista attitudes and sexist beliefs. For example, one woman complained that when she took her husband to trial for years of domestic abuse, the judge asked her, “And well, ma’am, were you neglecting your cooking and cleaning duties in the home?” Other women note that their partners attempt to excuse their acts of violence by arguing that they were drunk when they beat or raped their wives or girlfriends.
Of course, the causes (and consequences) of gender-based violence are very complex and cannot be explained in simple terms. In her book, Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), anthropologist Lesley Gill argues that one of the factors contributing to male-on-female violence in Bolivia is men’s service in the military in their late-teens and early-twenties. The training and socialization that men undergo during compulsory military service, says Gill, fosters myths of male superiority and often leads male soldiers to abuse their family members and partners upon their return to civilian life. Violence within the family, however, is not solely the fault of men or of state-mandated military service–several organizations working to combat violence in Bolivia note high rates of parental violence against children, which is perpetrated by fathers and mothers alike.
For many of the marchers, salir a la calle to protest violence against women represented an act of personal vindication that allowed them to express their anger about having suffered violence in their own lives. For instance, the marcher pictured below (with her permission), suffered acute health problems as a result of her husband’s beatings. After she sought help from a local organization providing legal and psychological support to women, this marcher was able to get her partner to cease his acts of violence; he ended up accompanying her on this march. This form of resolution may seem unacceptable to some. However, it seems to me that one of the most desirable outcomes of work on non-violence and personal empowerment is to create the necessary conditions for women to design and to live their lives with autonomy. Although we may still fall far short of reaching this goal, this marcha gave women, girls, and their allies in Bolivia the chance to make visible what all to often remains invisible.
Aside from giving women the opportunity to publicly protest their own experiences of violence, this marcha had a variety of objectives. First, movilizantes hoped to increase local press coverage on the issue of gender-based violence in Bolivia. In addition, many of the asistentes to the march held signs demanding the inclusion of the crime of “femicide” or “feminicide” into Bolivia’s penal code. Arguing that many women’s murderers in Latin America serve disturbingly short sentences for their crimes, since these are often designated “homicidio por emoción violenta,” or essentially “crimes of passion,” several women’s rights organizations in the region are pushing for official recognition of feminicide. Feminicidio, which gained international recognition due chiefly to the murders of women in Guatemala and Mexico, is understood as the murder of women simply because they are women. These murders are usually, but not always, perpetrated by male partners, ex-partners, family members, “friends,” or acquaintances. Women’s and human rights’ organizations throughout Latin America and elsewhere have struggled, particularly in the last fifteen years, to incorporate feminicide into national penal codes as a hate crime carrying prison terms of at least 25 years. Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala represent three of the few countries that currently recognize and provide specific punishments for the crime of feminicide.
At about midday on November 25, when we finally reached the city center, a small commission carried a voto resolutivo to the government palace asking for official recognition of feminicide and gender-based violence, and the establishment of specific punishments for perpetrators of these crimes. About an hour and a half later, a representative of this commission informed the marchers that the voto resolutivo had been approved by the Evo Morales administration. What this exactly means, however, is still to be determined… While official recognition of gender-based violence is definitely a logro importante–an important victory–discrimination against women in Latin America (and elsewhere) has deep roots and will most likely require both time and persistent work to overcome.