Archive for January, 2010

30 de Enero: Hagamos un cambio, y no sólo desde arriba

Posted in Bolivia, women with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Several days ago on the blog, I quoted a friend lamenting that, after Bolivian president Evo Morales elevated a high-profile woman to the senate, he suddenly asserted that men and women are equal–and implicitly, that women no longer have any need to organize.  As if in response, several articles emerged this week celebrating the “unprecedented gender parity” of Evo’s new cabinet, which is made up of 10 male and 10 female members.  (See here for an example of an article in Spanish, here for one in English.)

Don’t get me wrong–gender parity in government is clearly a good thing, although female cabinet members do not necessarily equal feminist ones.  The danger of Evo’s “unprecedented” move, however, is its punch line–the insistence that now, women are equal to men, and their activism, obsolete.

While reports of Evo’s new “gender harmonious” cabinet all but flooded the international news, an interview with dissenting feminist activist Dunia Mokrani Chávez went largely unnoticed.  (See here for the original Spanish version, here for the English.)  Mokrani, a political analyst and one of the founders of local feminist organization Tejedoras de Sueños, notes that leftist political circles in Bolivia are not necessarily any less machista than conservative ones.  Although this may be true in many countries, in Bolivia, this contradiction seems particularly stark.  In the 1970s, arguably the most militant group of workers in the world–Bolivian miners–were also wife-beaters who vigorously opposed the formation of housewives’ committees in the mines.

In previous postings, I have noted the very real effects of machismo–both institutional and domestic–on the lives of Bolivian women.  An estimated 7 of 10 women in Bolivia suffer physical violence, and rates of feminicide, sexual violence, and maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion are equally alarming.  So, what happens when the state institutes quota systems to achieve gender parity in a society in which the average man believes he owns his wife?

In the words of Mokrani, “there are…cases of physical violence when [female town councilwomen] refused to resign” to let men take their places.

“There are many cases in which female leaders have been looked down upon by the…community members they represent, just for being women. Some…meetings are held in bars. Union representatives meet in bars and if a woman comes in to discuss, it’s frowned upon. So [people] don’t look down at them, or for their children or husband’s sake, the women leave their posts.”

“We have heard deputies of MAS [the ruling Movement to Socialism] party tell fellow lawmakers that women are not able to represent the people.”

Evo, says Mokrani, was fond of saying that his government would “not…have an indigenous issues ministry…[because] ‘we indigenous are no longer an issue.’…Little by little,” she notes, “this [phenomenon] has translated to the issue of women,” wherein Evo claims that “women are also involved in everything, something that’s just not true.”

In other words, “just uttering that women are involved in everything does not give us access.”

In many ways, Evo’s government has been revolutionary–in its long-overdue recognition of the exploitation of indigenous peoples and the real incorporation of these peoples into leadership.  And yes, also in “gender parity” in government.  But the problem is, Evo Morales is not a hero.  He is a man.  And he cannot single-handedly overturn centuries-long patriarchal domination, or even ethnic discrimination.  Those changes must come primarily from below, through education–so that day-to-day interactions between him and her, between camba and kolla, are ones of mutual recognition and respect.  So, by all means, women–and indigenous people–must keep organizing.  But I don’t have to say that–they already are.

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24 de Enero: ¿Qué quiere decir ‘extremo’?

Posted in Bolivia, sexuality with tags , , , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Over the time that I have spent conducting research on women and gender in Bolivia, I have had the opportunity speak with scores of activists in the local feminist community, representing a variety of different organizations.  Some of these organizations work on sexual and reproductive rights; many aim to reduce violence against women; others focus on increasing women’s political participation; still others target a specific demographic, such as campesina or indigenous women.  Many of these organizations work on a combination of issues.

Since I first set foot in La Paz in January 1999, countless individuals–feminists and not-so-feminists, taxi drivers and newspaper vendors, restauranteurs and health care providers–have informed me in hushed tones that the organization Mujeres Creando is the “most extreme” of La Paz’s feminist groups.  (See http://www.mujerescreando.org/)

But why “extreme”?  What exactly does “extreme” mean in this context?  The home of Mujeres Creando–a sizable building on 20 de Octubre street, called Virgen de los Deseos–houses a health-food restaurant, a hostel for visitors, a small shop and bookstore, a public shower, a low-cost clinic, and childcare for its guests.  The organization holds seminars and workshops on a variety of themes, offers literacy classes, publishes magazines and books, and maintains a radio station, Radio Deseo 103.3 FM. None of these activities seem exactly “out of control.”  Perhaps so many describe Mujeres Creando as “extreme” because of their raucous street performances, where women occasionally appear in their underwear?  Or because they dare to call Bolivia’s popular indigenous president, Evo Morales, machista?  (A recent protest circulated pamphlets imagining what Evo’s life would have been like had he been born a woman.  An accompanying graffiti read, “No saldrá Eva de la costilla de Evo,” or, “Eva will not emerge from Evo’s rib.”)  Or maybe the organization seems extreme because one of its founders sports an unusual haircut and dark eye makeup–María Galindo often shaves one side of her head.

Eventually, I gave up guessing why so many paceñas refer to Mujeres Creando as the “most extreme” of the local feminist organizations, and simply asked.  The response, after much hemming and hawing, usually read like this: “Well, you know, they make women’s issues about being lesbian;” or, “They’re always so public about being lesbians;” or, “They just don’t like men at all.”

It is true that some of Mujeres Creando‘s current and former leadership is lesbian-identified.  The organization was originally founded by María Galindo and her then-partner Julieta Paredes.  After the couple split, Galindo continued as a central figure in Mujeres Creando, while Paredes moved into other areas of feminist activism.  So, those are the facts.

And the fallacies?  The manias, the myths, the “extremeness”?  It seems that, to your average paceña–even to some feminist activist paceñas–the mere existence of a couple of women organizers who do not have sex with men (and who have sex with women) is so unthinkable, that it makes the entire organization “extreme.”  Extreme, meaning = unreasonable, not representative of “real” women’s concerns, and perhaps, dismissible.

Recently, on my way up to El Alto, the trufi in which I was traveling passed the following graffiti:

“You have to be brave to be a fag.  Mujeres Creando.”

Mujeres Creando‘s graffiti are often full of puns, word games, and double entendres, and this one is no exception.  In a country where maricón, like fag in the U.S., is often used to describe an “unmanly man”–the opposite, perhaps, of a brave man–the organization points out a definite reality: that actually, one DOES have to be brave to be a fag.  Gays, lesbians, transgendered, and gender-queers around the world face discrimination and violence, making the act of being open and out one of bravery and defiance.

However, as I read this, another thought occurred to me: perhaps this phrase also expresses the reality that Mujeres Creando and its members–gay and straight–face daily.  Perhaps in Bolivia, where being gay–or even being part of an organization whose leadership is gay–means being labeled as “extreme” (again, = unreasonable, dismissible), you DO have to be brave.  You have to be brave to be out: as a fag, as a feminist, and even, as a woman.

22 de Enero: ‘Blog’ por el derecho a decidir

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Today, as many of you may know, marks the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in that country back in 1973.  To mark this historic date, each year, the U.S. organization NARAL Pro-Choice America asks members of the international pro-choice blogging community to blog about a particular question regarding abortion rights.  This year, NARAL asks us to remember Dr. George R. Tiller, the Kansas abortion doctor who was shot and killed in the church he attended back in June 2009.  In life, Dr. Tiller frequently used to say, “Trust women.”  So, for this year’s “Blog for Choice” day, NARAL asks, “What does trust women mean to you?”

You can learn more about “Blog for Choice” day, and see a list of participating bloggers, here.

As a segue into my posting for Blog for Choice day, I’d like to tell a brief story about the (rather new) significance of el 22 de Enero in Bolivia.  Earlier this week, Bolivians learned that today would be a declared a national holiday—everyone would have the day off from work and school, and this new holiday would be observed during each coming year.  Bolivia’s current president—and first-ever indigenous president—Evo Morales, has designated January 22 as a day in recognition of his administration’s founding of a “plurinational state” in Bolivia.  Morales’ plurinational state is one that ostensibly recognizes, celebrates, and incorporates into leadership members of the at least 55% of the nation’s population that is of indigenous descent (mostly Aymara and Quechua, but other groups as well).

The significance of Evo Morales’ leadership in Bolivia for indigenous populations is far too complex to explore here (and several brilliant and thoughtful sources have already done so).  However, a different question has been troubling me, which is, what is the significance of Evo Morales’ leadership in Bolivia for women, including indigenous women?  Last night, over beer and French fries, I asked my Bolivian, Quechua-descendent, feminist activist, 50-ish woman friend just this question.  Her response was, roughly, “My frustration with Evo is that he elevates one woman to the senate [Ana María Campero], and then asserts that men and women are equal—which is another way of telling us to be quiet, to quit organizing.”

Anyone who heard my interview on Radio Deseo “Trajines” (see earlier posting) knows that I am deeply wary of so-called feminist organizations that view indigenous culture—and indigenous women—as obstacles to the realization of the (implicitly western) sexual and reproductive rights agenda, including the right to safe and legal abortion.  The objective of organizing for the sexual and reproductive rights of women should be to guarantee women of all cultures and ethnicities the ability to define and to exercise those rights as they wish—even when the outcome bears little resemblance to the western feminist line.  U.S. feminists will find these debates very familiar.  Throughout that country’s feminist movement, women of color have often had to struggle to be recognized as women, often creating separate movements that would cater more directly to their interests.  (See for example the influential book by bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1981.)  In Bolivia, as in the U.S., this theme is not a simple one, and I expect it will come up time and again in this blog.

And so, somewhat circuitously, we come to our theme: trust women.  What does it mean to me?

Trusting women means listening to and believing in the indigenous, mestiza, and European-descendent women in Bolivia who have shared with me their experiences with unwanted pregnancy and abortion, even when—perhaps especially when—these experiences fly in the face of my own assumptions and beliefs about pregnancy and abortion:

The woman who sought out two illegal abortions, but refuses to refer to those pregnancies as “unwanted.”

The woman whose abortion provider, after telling her he was the only one she could trust, raped her in a Santa Cruz hotel room.

The woman who now adores her four children, but insists that each of them were once “unwanted pregnancies.”

The woman whose family doctor understood her and took care of her, providing her with three abortions and delivering her three children.

The woman whose Catholic priest has failed to help her come to terms with her own abortion.

The woman who referred to her pregnancy as an “illness” that had been “cured” by an abortion.

The woman who explicitly asked me not to judge her before telling me about her own unplanned pregnancy—and now beautiful baby girl.

The woman who takes oral contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, but lets her husband believe that she simply cannot become pregnant.

The woman who swallowed an unknown mix of herbs to terminate a pregnancy that her partner would not accept, narrowly escaping death.

The woman who thanked me for asking her about her abortion—

And the other woman, who asked me not to ask her about hers.

Although sometimes it is difficult, because our cultures clash or because my beliefs do not exactly match theirs, Bolivian women have taught me to trust them.  To trust that they know and can best explain their own experiences, and that their beliefs about the meaning of “abortion,” “pregnancy,” and “wantedness”—although perhaps different from my own—are no less “correct,” or “true.”  So, today, alongside Dr. Tiller, I also want to thank the many Bolivian women who, through their openness, persistence, and insistence, have taught me what it really means to trust.

16 de Enero: El aborto inseguro en Bolivia

Posted in Bolivia, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , , on January 16, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

I’d like to use the first post of 2010 to share the most recent bulletin of the La Paz-based feminist organization CIDEM (Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer), and to reflect on the phenomenon of unsafe abortion in Bolivia.  Although perhaps not the most uplifting theme to address at the start of the new year, in Bolivia, it is a highly important one—in the late 1990s, it was estimated that fully 43% of maternal deaths in the country resulted from complications from abortion (Zulawski, 2007).   The current issue of CIDEM’s Spanish-language bulletin, La Escoba, can be accessed here:

Boletina La Escoba Segunda época no 7

CIDEM’s publication La Escoba, which is released two to three times per year, addresses a number of important issues affecting women in Bolivia.  The most recent edition, published in November 2009, centers around the theme of feminicide.  As I have mentioned previously in the blog, feminist activists around the world are engaged in struggles to incorporate the term feminicide—defined as the murder of women simply because we are women—into national penal codes.

It is believed that, by including feminicide in legal codes, murderers of women will no longer be able to slide by with “crime of passion” defenses, which have often gained these criminals fairly brief prison sentences.  Official recognition of feminicide as a crime specifically targeting women—to be distinguished from homicide or manslaughter—would necessarily render a murder’s mental state at the time of the crime irrelevant.  In other words, with feminicide on the books, a man who kills his wife due to suspected or actual infidelity, because she has asked for a divorce, or for any other commonly cited excuse, would still face a just punishment for his crime—according to CIDEM, 30 years to life, without the possibility of parole.

Of the six distinct types of feminicide that CIDEM identifies in its bulletin, one in particular caught my attention: feminicide due to poorly practiced abortion.  Of the 22 feminicides registered in Bolivia between July and October of 2009, two were deaths of women due to abortion.  In the United States or in certain areas of Europe, it is now nearly impossible to imagine that one of the most commonly practiced surgeries in the world could end in death, although those alive before the procedure was legalized know just how common this was.  However, in Bolivia, abortion-related death continues to be a reality.  Although in Bolivia abortion is illegal in most circumstances, 6 of 10 women will have at least one abortion in her lifetime–an estimated 30,000 abortions are performed per year (Zulawski, 2007).

It should not be surprising that, even in a country where abortion is illegal, so many procedures are performed annually.  In fact, abortion rates are often higher in countries where the procedure is illegal, since birth control access and education are also often restricted in these nations.  (For example, compare Bolivia’s rate of 6/10 women having an abortion in her lifetime to the U.S.’s rate of 1/3.)  So, if making abortion illegal does not reduce abortion rates, what does illegal abortion accomplish?  Quite simply, women’s deaths.  As Susan Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute points out, “abortion’s legal status has much less to do with how often it occurs than with whether or not it is safe… The fact is that almost all unsafe abortions occur in the developing world” (Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 4).

But, wait—what does it mean to call “poorly practiced abortion” a form of feminicide, a murder of women simply because they are women?  CIDEM’s revolutionary idea is this—that the same conditions that have shaped Bolivia’s society to be machista and to believe in men’s natural right to control women’s bodies, dead or alive, have also created laws that attempt to deny women control over their own reproduction.  I say “attempt,” because a state’s control over its citizenry can only ever be partial—women will continue to have abortions, regardless of its legal status.  Instead, the penalization of abortion fosters a culture of death—of women’s deaths, of feminicide—by fomenting an unregulated, class-based, abortion care.

While women with resources will pay $100 for a safe abortion with a private physician, the poorer majority will visit run-down clinics in busy market districts, paying $15 for an abortion performed on an office desk by an unqualified provider using unsterilized instruments.  Some women have reported being drugged and raped by these providers after receiving their abortions.  These providers, fearing legal repercussions, rarely allow women to return to the clinic if they have severe bleeding or pain following their procedures, so many women do not seek follow-up care.  Some die.

It may be tempting to blame these unscrupulous abortion providers for women’s deaths, but that is insufficient.  It is the joint responsibility of the state, of policymakers, of activists, of medical providers, and of anyone in favor of human rights, to recognize that abortion is a public health issue—a women’s health issue, an issue of life and death—and to do the right thing: to legalize abortion, aquí, allá, y en todas partes.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.