20 de Febrero: Igualando oportunidades

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.

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