Archive for February, 2010

27 de Febrero: La violencia también migra

Posted in Bolivia, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Last Thursday, a 26-year-old Bolivian woman was murdered by her husband in the town of Almería, Spain, where they both lived with the attacker’s sister.  Evidently, the 31-year-old Bolivian man was moved by jealousy to stab his wife in the neck and to beat her on the face and head.  The aggressor’s sister ran out of the house to call the police, but by the time they arrived, the woman–who is being called M.R.E.–was already dead.  M.R.E. is survived by her two children in Spain, and various family members in Bolivia, who have recently succeeded in repatriating her remains to the city of Santa Cruz.  Although the Bolivian press has not been quick to identify this murder as feminicide or even as gender-based violence, some Spanish papers and organizations fortunately have.  (Click here for an example of an article from the Bolivian press; here for a Spanish-language article from a Spanish women’s rights organization, and here for an English-language article from a web-based directory on Spain.)

Photo of Almería, Spain, courtesy of Gernot Keller via Wikimedia Commons.

According to the Bolivia Information Forum, there may be as many as 300,000 Bolivians living in Spain, including those that are unregistered.  These Bolivians, although doubtless poorer than Spanish natives, are most certainly wealthier than the majority back home.  The fact that violence against Bolivian women–something that 9 of 10 women face in Bolivia–continues in Spain, is a powerful reminder that domestic and sexual violence are not simply problems of the lower classes, but occur across socioeconomic spectrums–including among migrants.

Migrants are in many ways a vulnerable population, particularly when it comes to engaging with law enforcement.  It is not surprising that migrant women who suffer violence abroad often choose not to report these events, since calling the attention of police could jeopardize their statuses in the host country, especially if they are “illegal” migrants.  (In addition, the police often do not take domestic violence calls seriously, or are ineffective at dealing with them.) Although scores of organizations in Western Europe and the United States (and elsewhere) work to inform migrants of their rights, many still fear exercising those rights due to the precariousness of their legal situations.  In addition to the fear of law enforcement, women migrants are made more vulnerable by their frequent isolation from the social and family networks that, in their home countries, might help them escape situations of violence.

For readers of Spanish, an interesting article emerged this week in the Spanish press that takes a rather poetic approach to this issue.  (All translations are my own.)  The author, Nieves Fernández, highlights the anonymity and isolation that many women feel when they suffer violence.  Fernández titles her article “Eme,” for the initial “M.” that is being used to identify this young Bolivian woman who was recently murdered–as if to say that even in death, this woman remains unknown.  One of the terrifying aspects about the anonymity and isolation that domestic violence produces is the sense that it can happen at any time, anywhere, and to anyone–as Fernández is quick to point out.  “M. lived in the center of the country,” she writes, “but this could have occurred in the north or the south, in the east or in the west and still she might not have reported [the crime]…”  Writes Fernández, “She was young, but she could’ve been much older than her 25 years…, she could’ve been thirty or forty…since age is not a factor in love nor in the antilove [that is expressed with] knives.”

And finally, “Her name was M….M, for mujer…”  Here’s to hoping–and to fighting to make sure–that you, or I, or any other woman, does not become another “M.”


20 de Febrero: Igualando oportunidades

Posted in Bolivia, inequality with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, a brief note on two pieces that at first glance seem somewhat unrelated: a recent article from the BBC applauding the role of Bolivian women in President Evo Morales’ administration, and a report by the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Equal Opportunities on their campaign urging young people to “live their sexuality with responsibility” during the crazy days of carnaval.

In a previous post, I have discussed what I see as the danger of congratulating too enthusiastically Evo Morales’ incorporation of unprecedented numbers of women into his administration.  By hand-picking several members of the female sex and depositing them in a variety of government posts, Morales can both claim that he is in favor of “women’s rights,” and insist that women’s activism is no longer necessary.  Luckily for Morales, this article by the BBC seems to support his contentions.

The opening sentences of the BBC piece adopt the common, and always disturbing, trope of arguing that things have generally sucked for women until an important man raced in to save the day.  Reporter Andres Schipani traces an undifferentiated line of women’s oppression from the wars for Bolivian independence in the early 1800s, to the ascension of Evo Morales to the presidency 200 years later.  Schipani writes, “In the early 19th Century, Bolivian women fought alongside men for the country’s independence from colonial Spain…But their presence on the battlefield did not translate into presence in the political life of their nation. For many, their education, job opportunities and political rights were limited – until now.”

However, Morales’ placement of a number of women into government posts neither means that these particular women will necessarily do anything to support women’s rights, nor does it automatically elevate other women’s chances for achieving similar success.  While some of the women that Morales have placed in government sport long careers in politics and an interest in women’s issues, others seem to have appeared out of nowhere and may not be equipped to carry out their jobs effectively (think U.S. ex-Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin).  Recently, a friend who shares my concern about the hoopla surrounding Morales’ new “feminist” cabinet remarked that, by placing unprepared women into government positions, the president may inadvertently reinforce stereotypes that women are ineffective and useless in politics.

So, what does elevate your average woman’s chances for success, if not Morales’ insertion of a few representatives of the female sex into government?  Here, I’d like to direct you to the report by the Vice-Ministry of Equal Opportunities on their recent campaign, “Que este carnaval no cambie tu vida, vive tu sexualidad con responsabilidad” (“Don’t let this carnaval change your life–live your sexuality with responsibility”).  Carnaval in Bolivia is a raucous event, consisting of four days to a week or more of drinking, dancing, costume-wearing, and general merry-making in mid-February.  The Vice-Ministry’s campaign for carnaval was, “directed toward youth and toward the Bolivian population to prevent problems such as: unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and domestic violence.”  (All translations are my own.)

Okay, so I realize that the strategy of creating “equal opportunities” for men and women through the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and STIs speaks to rather different issues than Morales’ strategy of fomenting gender parity in government–but still, I am impressed.  I am impressed largely because this campaign constitutes a direct recognition on the part of the government both of the gravity of problems such as unwanted pregnancy and violence in Bolivia, and of the role these problems play in maintaining women’s unequal status.  Of course, descriptions of the Vice-Ministry’s campaign are limited to what I have quoted here–it’s unclear if condoms were distributed during carnaval, or if government officials simply “urged” Bolivians to “be careful.”

In general, it seems to me that the more proposals for gender equality, the merrier, whether these target congress or party-goers.  This doesn’t mean, however, that we should accept these proposals outright, without discussion or debate.  Perhaps especially when proposals for gender parity are handed down to us by a patriarchal state, the need for democratic debate–and the inclusion of women in this debate–is particularly called for.

16 de Febrero: Del silencio a los juguetes sexuales

Posted in Bolivia, Press, sexuality with tags , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Somewhat surprisingly, two articles came out in the “Society” section of La Paz’s La Razón newspaper yesterday focusing on sex toys.  In a country where so many individuals report such difficulty in talking about the “life-and-death” aspects of sex–such as pregnancy and STI prevention–it struck me as amusing to run into these articles, which focus explicitly on the pleasurable aspects of sex.  The articles review the top-selling sex toys for different cities and offer advice to couples who are thinking about using them.  (Evidently, in Santa Cruz, couples prefer penis-pumps that temporarily lengthen the penis, while in La Paz, people prefer vibrators and “new and unusual” toys.)

In some ways, I suppose it isn’t all that surprising to encounter these articles in the La Paz press. Like any newspaper, La Razón clearly hopes to titillate and shock its readers–this sort of reporting sells papers.  What is less surprising about these articles, however, are their more subtle aspects, which reveal distinctly conservative messages about the “appropriate” use of sex toys.  The first of these articles provides an overview of types of sex toys and their sale across the country, while the second offers “expert” opinions on negotiating sex-toy use within couples.  (All translations are my own.)

The title of the first article, “Novel sex toys most seduce people from La Paz,” is probably sort of a jab at cruceños–people from Santa Cruz, who are in cultural and political rivalry with local paceños.  This article adopts a sort of cavalier attitude toward the topic of sex toys, one that (probably erroneously) assumes that its readers are already on the up-and-up, and are simply curious to learn what toys are favored by the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and other cities.  The reporter informs us that some of the latest and greatest sex toys are imported from the U.S. (like everything late-and-great, right?); that young people are more nervous to approach sex shops than adults, and that proper hygiene is essential in the use of these devices.

Actually, all the information in this article is useful, and can probably only do good in getting paceños to talk about sex and pleasure.  A glaring omission in this article, however, is any discussion of masturbatory sex toys for solo use.  These are sex toys than men and women may use while alone, in part to pleasure themselves, but also in part, to learn about their own sexual desires and fantasies–information that they can later share with their partners.  The moral of this article is that sexuality and sexual pleasure are to be shared with partners, but not to be explored alone.

Somewhat ironically, the second article, entitled, “The use of sexual products should be mutually agreed upon,” is accompanied by this picture:

This “latex vagina in the form of a vampire mouth” is probably often used by men for solo acts of masturbation.  (I can’t resist pointing out the somewhat disturbing correlation between a vampire-mouth vagina–ie. blood-sucking, life-sucking, generally perilous–and some men’s fears of female sexuality as emasculating and as a “trap” for the unsuspecting bachelor.)

Despite the picture of the masturbation sleeve, this article also ignores the possibility of solo sex-toy use.  In fact, the entire article focuses on the advice of “experts” to speak openly with our partners about the use of toys.  In general, this seems like very good advice.  However, the experts quoted here offer so many warnings about the potentially terrible reactions of our partners to our own interest in sex toys, that their advice is hardly encouraging.

The opening line reads, “The use of a sex toy to fulfill the sexual fantasies of a couple should be the result of mutual agreement, so that humiliation and disgust do not result.”  One Puerto Rican sexologist asserts that the use of sex toys “‘is not the result of a mental disturbance.'”  (Well, I didn’t really think it was, until you said that…)  Bolivian sexologist José Luis Harb remarks, “‘As long as it is mutually agreed upon, that it doesn’t hurt any third party, that there is harmony in the couple, and that it does not generate any dysrhythmia, it is okay.”  Yikes!

Even the proprietor of one of the local sex shops was merely lukewarm in his recommendation of sex-toy use: “The use of sex toys can help couples enjoy [sex] more, of course, assuming that the other person agrees with this and that no one gets upset.”  In the closing paragraph of the article, a final expert warns, “the use of sex toys can become a problem when one person becomes humiliated or hurt due to their partner’s use of a sex toy without his or her consent.”  So, who’s up for using sex toys now?  Anyone??

This article uses a tactic that is typical of some conservative sectors around the world–of supposedly providing “information” about sex, while masking this “information” in fear and shame.  Recently, a Bolivian friend remarked that the sexual education he received in his conservative high school consisted of being shown the films Kids and Trainspotting without any accompanying discussion or debate.  Like abstinence-only education, these tactics do not have the effects of creating sex-positive cultures or reducing teen pregnancy or abortion rates.  Instead, they incite feelings of fear and shame and force sex into the closet, where open discussions of birth control, sex toys, and STI prevention become impossible.  So, thanks, La Razón, for your hip and racey articles on sex toys–and for effectively scaring me out of using them.

Sex-positive resources:

13 de Febrero: Mejor no hablemos de excusas

Posted in Bolivia, Press, sexual violence, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Back in November 2009, my first-ever post to this blog reflected on the problem of violence against women in Bolivia.  For the past few years, feminist activists in Bolivia have been pressuring lawmakers to incorporate the term feminicidio into legal codes, to prevent men who kill their wives, girlfriends, exes, sisters, cousins, etc., from getting off with “crime of passion” defenses.  A crime of passion defense usually reads like this: “Your honor, I was just so angry and heartbroken when I heard that Fulana was [insert actual or suspected infidelity here], that I just couldn’t control myself, and I [insert violent crime here].”  At last year’s march commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, one of the slogans we shouted until hoarse was, “No es crimen pasional–es asesinato.” (It’s not a crime of passion–it’s murder.)

For those of us who believe that men and women are indeed equal and that both have the unalienable right to live without violence, these crime of passion defenses seem laughable–or they would, if they weren’t so dangerous.  Then, why do they work?  Who or what contributes to the legitimacy of this type of defense in Bolivian society?

One culprit is undoubtedly machismo and the double standards that it engenders–ie., he cheats with impunity, but she can’t even have male friends; he has a job and a social life, while she is confined to the home and to the production of offspring.  As I’ve mentioned several times before, machismo in Bolivia is fierce, and seemingly endemic to both home and professional life in the country.

So, in part, we have everyday interactions between Bolivian men and women to thank for crime of passion defenses.  But perhaps more perilously, we also have the press.  This week, the La-Paz daily La Razón covered the story of one man’s brutal murder of a sex worker in an El Alto motel room. (As always, all translations are my own.)  Evidently, when the young woman Zulma Apaza refused to have sex with her would-be client, he strangled her and used a broken bottle to cut her vagina.  In a statement to police, the murderer Óscar Condori Vargas said, “The señorita turned up dead, I got up and I don’t know, I don’t know anything, I didn’t see anything; I don’t know in what moment they did [killed] her; I had fallen asleep, I was drunk.”

My first reaction after reading Condori’s statement was to ask, “Well, which was it??” But no–it’s better to not talk about excuses.  Because the fact is, there is no excuse for murder. That is why we call a person’s “reason” for committing murder a motive, not an excuse that absolves the murderer of responsibility for the crime. And yet, this article traffics in excuses, rather than motives, offering them up like sacrifices.  In the Condori case, the reporter informs us that the excuse was the sex worker’s refusal to seal the deal.  (Violence against sex workers is a pervasive and troubling phenomenon that I cannot cover in detail in this post, but see here for recent treatment of this problem in the U.S.)

In its closing paragraphs, the La Razón article reviews other crimes that were recently perpetrated in El Alto motels, offering an excuse for each.  Last Christmas Eve, one man decapitated his girlfriend with a kitchen knife before attempting to escape, carrying her head with him inside a cardboard box.  “The motives of the crime were passionate, according to the [local police],” assures the reporter.  “In two other cases [of murder in El Alto motel rooms],” the article continues, “the victim unleashed her lover’s jealousy by calling him by the wrong name.”  Are these “motives”?  Explanations that we can add to a case file before locking the bastards away for 25-years-to-life?  No–these are excuses. In this article, La Razón is, perhaps unwittingly, justifying the crime of passion defense and ultimately excusing the absence of just prison sentences for male perpetrators of feminicide in Bolivia.  So please–no more “passionate” excuses.  Just give us cold hard motive, evidence, trial, and finally–justice.

7 de Febrero: Cuál es la noticia aquí?

Posted in Bolivia, children, Press, sexual violence, women with tags , , , , , , on February 7, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

I just discovered an article that was published last week in La Paz’s La Razón newspaper, entitled, “A Taxi Driver Rapes a Young Girl in the Valley.” (All translations here are my own.)  Apparently, on the evening of January 25 in Valle de Sajta, Bolivia, a considerably sloshed couple got in a taxi along with their nine-year-old daughter and, when they arrived at their destination, inadvertently left the girl behind.  The taxi driver, realizing the couple’s mistake, drove off with the young girl and was caught soon later in the act of raping her.

Clearly, no matter how this “story” is written up in the paper, it is absolutely terrible.  A young girl was raped.  And her parents made a horrible, perhaps inexcusable, mistake.  But what should bother us more–that these drunk parents left their kid in the car, or that this taxi driver saw that fact as an opportunity to RAPE the kid?

And yet, if we read the article carefully, the “news story” that this reporter seems to find most relevant is the parents’ negligence.  The full title of the article, with the subtitle, reads, “A Taxi Driver Rapes a Young Girl in the Valley: CARELESSNESS-Inebriated Parents Forget Their Daughter in a Taxi Cab in the Tropics.”  A paragraph later, the article states, “…last Monday night, the drunk parents of the victim got out of a taxi without their daughter, and the driver, taking advantage of their state of inebriation, drove away with the child to sexually abuse her.”  This reads disturbingly like an implicit validation of the driver’s decision–as if anyone in a similar situation, facing a similar “opportunity,” would naturally take advantage, were it not for the watchful eye of the parent (or, perhaps, of the husband, boyfriend, or other protective father figure).

The article closes with a matter-of-fact review of the statistics of child rape in the region of Cochabamba, where this crime occurred.  (At least the reporter has the decency to call these stats “alarming.”)  In 2009, there were 400 reported cases of child rape in Cochabamba.  (How many, I wonder, unreported?)  The final sentence of the piece informs us dryly, “Of these cases, only 1% of [these victims’ rapists] were sent to prison.”

6 de Febrero: Los que realmente queremos

Posted in birth control, Bolivia, fertility with tags , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week I’d like to share a study that was published in the December 2009 issue of International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin Catherine B. McNamee brings us this study, titled, “Wanted and Unwanted Fertility in Bolivia: Does Ethnicity Matter?”  You can access the PDF of the article here:

Wanted and Unwanted Fertility

Early in her article, McNamee points out a well known fact—that indigenous women in Bolivia have a consistently higher fertility rate than mestiza (mixed-race) and white women in the country.  (While in 2001 indigenous women had on average 5.0 children each, non-indigenous women had 3.6.)  The question that the author then poses is simple, but as she points out, rarely addressed in studies of this type: do indigenous women have more children than mestiza and white women because they want to?

The answer, not surprisingly, is no. McNamee finds that the desired fertility rate for indigenous women is 2.7 children, 2.6 for mestiza and white women—which means that, while both groups are having more children than they want, indigenous women are having way more than they want (167).

One problem, clearly, is birth control use.  Only 27% of indigenous women report using “modern” methods of birth control (which are more effective than traditional methods), compared with 61% of non-indigenous women (170).   McNamee identifies a variety of factors that make using these contraceptive methods more difficult for indigenous women than for mestiza and white women.

A central obstacle to indigenous women’s use of modern methods is the real or perceived opposition of their male partners.  McNamee notes that, “cultural barriers that inhibit indigenous couples from discussing family planning could contribute to…unwanted fertility” (173).  Machismo also certainly plays a role.  Many women state that their partners oppose their birth control use because they believe that, with their wives on the pill, they can sleep with other men without fearing pregnancy.  Other women confess that they use methods without their partners’ knowledge.  (This is why relatively confidential methods like Depo Provera are so popular here.)

In addition to unsupportive partners, McNamee finds that many indigenous women simply distrust birth control and Western medicine in general (167).  This belief has a long and somewhat sordid history in Bolivia, and is not altogether unfounded.  In 1971, the Peace Corps were famously expelled from the country due to allegations that the group was sterilizing women and inserting IUDS without women’s knowledge or consent.  These policies were correctly identified as part of eugenic and imperialist attempts to limit low-income indigenous populations worldwide.  Indigenous women in Bolivia also often suffer discrimination in Western health care facilities, where they are sometimes insulted or mistreated, and prevented from practicing the reproductive rituals that they prefer (taking home the placenta after birth, for example).  For these reasons, women may be hesitant to visit health care centers or to use modern birth control methods.

Finally, McNamee notes that indigenous women are consistently poorer and more likely to live in rural areas than non-indigenous women, which obstructs their access to birth control methods (173).

McNamee makes a few key policy suggestions to help reduce unwanted pregnancies among indigenous populations that have not, to my knowledge, been attempted in any large-scale way in Bolivia.  First of all, she makes the revolutionary suggestion to direct birth control information and services toward men, as well as women. Secondly, McNamee urges policymakers to increase access to birth control methods in rural areas and to promote culturally sensitive care, so that more women will feel comfortable visiting health posts and hospitals.

As McNamee notes, “women, regardless of ethnicity, should be able to control the number and timing of their births. The inability to control fertility is an incursion upon basic human rights”(167).

I would add to this that women should also be able to control how we time our births and how we understand and manage our fertility.  Indigenous women’s hesitation to use Western birth control methods and facilities is complex and understandable.  Perhaps a final and apt suggestion would be to promote non-Western proposals, from local midwife and yatiri communities, to decrease the gap between the number of children we want, and the number of children we have.