Archive for March, 2010

27 de Marzo: Puntos de Reflexión

Posted in Bolivia, images with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, I’d like to offer a number of simple facts about Bolivia that impact women’s lives, along with some images of La Paz and El Alto.  I hope that these will serve to raise awareness about the country and about some of the issues it faces, and perhaps spark comparative reflection about the countries where you all live and work.  As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please contact me for citation information for the facts presented below.

City scene in La Paz, Bolivia.

Bolivia’s maternal mortality rate of 222 women per 100,000 is the second highest in Latin America (after Haiti).

About 30% of maternal deaths in the country are due to complications from abortion.

6 of 10 Bolivian women will have at least one abortion in her lifetime.  (The rate for women in the United States is 1 in 3.)

Graffiti penned by Bolivian youth from El Alto, reading, “You decide – Don’t let yourself get carried away,” with drawing of condom.

69% of Bolivian women lack access to reliable contraceptive methods.

In 2008, 1 in 4 of women giving birth at one of the largest public women’s hospitals in La Paz were teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 19.

The same hospital saw 1,122 cases of incomplete abortion and “miscarriage” in 2009—over 3 per day.  Doctors insist that the majority of these cases correspond to incomplete provoked abortions.

Some women facing unwanted pregnancy end up abandoning their children rather than seeking an abortion during pregnancy.  The above image is a “foundling wheel” embedded in the wall of a La Paz-based orphanage, where desperate parents can place an infant and then spin the wheel to safely deposit it inside the home without revealing their identities.

Abortion in Bolivia has been legal since 1973 in cases of rape or to save the mother’s life, yet only five legal abortions have ever been performed.  In most cases, women and adolescent girls deliver their babies before the bureaucratic processes required to obtain a legal abortion come through.

7 of every 10 Bolivian women suffer physical violence three to five times per year; 6 of these 7 are victimized by a member of their own family.  About 53% of women do not report these crimes.

143 girls and women were murdered in Bolivia during 2009.  98 of these murders can be considered feminicides–murders of females for the simple fact that they are female.

International Women’s Day protesters in La Paz carry a banner reading, “A dignified life without violence.”  The woman in front and to the left of those holding the banner carries a paper sign reading, “Enough with corrupt attorneys and  judges!”  Many feminist activists in Bolivia contend that legal representatives in the country accept bribes from men who have murdered women in exchange for lenient prison sentences.


20 de Marzo: Progresista, pero no hacia las mujeres

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, Latin America with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

A recent article by the IPS via Upside Down World reviews the dire situation of abortion in today’s Latin America.  The article, “Abortion in Latin America — Still Illegal, Still Killing, Despite Growing Awareness,” notes that more abortions are performed in Latin America than in any other world region, and that abortion is the second leading cause of maternal mortality in Latin American countries.  Abortion-related complications are responsible for “4,000 avoidable deaths” per year.

From left: “Condom–take responsibility,” and “Abortion is not only a woman’s issue.”

By now, it should surprise no one that Latin America leads the world in numbers of abortions not despite the fact that the procedure is illegal in almost every country in the region, but likely, because of it.  Statistics have shown time and time again that criminalizing abortion tends to increase, not decrease, numbers of abortions.  While four countries do not allow the procedure under any circumstance–including to save the mother’s life–13 countries allow the procedure in very limited situations, such as in cases of rape, incest, fetal malformation, or when the woman’s health or life is at risk.  Abortion on demand is available in Cuba since 1965, and in Mexico City since 2007.

What may be surprising, however, is that abortion restrictions remain tight in Latin America despite the presence of left-wing leaders in government.  Perhaps because of political tendencies in the U.S. or in Europe–where left-wing leaders often champion progressive legislation on gender equality–many of us tend to see left-wing movements as necessarily woman-positive.  In Latin America, however, this is not so. In fact, two of Latin America’s so-called progressive administrations rolled back access to abortion in the last few years, while two of the region’s “conservative” governments liberalized abortion access.  This tendency in Latin America is not new.  Scholar Mala Htun finds that conservative military governments in Latin America passed progressive legislation on issues of divorce, abortion, and parental rights between the 1960s and 1980s, while democracies often failed to do so.

“I decide.”

Moriana Hernández, a Uruguayan sociologist quoted in this article, notes that sexism is so entrenched in Latin American society that machista attitudes cross the political spectrum.  “‘It’s easy to negotiate over the bodies of women because of that patriarchal influence,'” she says.  Because of this, the issue of abortion–of women’s right to control their own reproductive lives–is often used as a “bargaining chip” in political struggles between leftist leaders and right-wing factions of society.  Rita Segato, an Argentine anthropologist, adds that the Catholic Church opposes abortion simply to demonstrate its continued influence in Latin America, and that the institution does not truly care about defending “life.”  If it did, says Segato, it would recognize what has been proven time and time again: that criminalizing abortion increases both abortion rates and women’s deaths. Don’t believe me?  In Cuba, where abortion has been legal on demand since 1965, “the abortion rate is less than 21 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, 10 points lower than the regional average” (emphasis mine).  

Both the right and the left in Latin America need to open their eyes: decriminalizing abortion will not only guarantee women’s inalienable right to control their own bodies and save women’s lives, it will also dramatically reduce the numbers of abortions being performed, plain and simple.

A graffiti drawn by Bolivian youth from El Alto, reading, “Being a father, being a mother–leave it for tomorrow.”  The first two images in today’s post were provided by a guest photographer.

13 de Marzo: Ni flores, ni gases en nuestro día

Posted in Bolivia, International Women's Day with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

As many of you know, last Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day (IWD), and while I shared some images on the blog from a La Paz-based IWD march, I have not yet had a chance to comment here on some of the events that took place.  IWD was a busy day in La Paz and I doubtless missed some of the activities that occurred, so the reflections that appear below are partial, at best, and represent my own experiences during the holiday.

The day began with a televised speech by Bolivian President Evo Morales that was even more disappointing than many local feminists expected.  (I have not yet been able to find a transcript of this speech; if I do, I will post it to the site.  This article, however, includes some brief quotes from the speech.)  Regular readers of the blog will remember that Morales recently instituted a policy of gender parity in his government cabinet which has gained international attention, despite the lack of political experience of some of these women.  Although Evo’s famous gender parity measure was instituted through a law, Morales’ speech insisted that women do not need government regulations, norms, or laws to achieve equality with men.  Instead, Evo argued that Bolivian women are often their own worst enemies, and that envy and in-fighting prevent them from achieving their full potential.  In other words, until all women can get on the same page, they have no business asserting themselves on the political scene.  (As if all men are on the same page, politically or socially, and refrain from political in-fighting.)

“The machismo of MAS [Movimiento al Socialismo, Evo Morales’ political affiliation] suffocates me more every day.”

Bolivian feminists had little time to react to Morales’ speech, since they were planning a morning march on the Ministry of Justice, a dilapidated yellow building on La Paz’s Prado street.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, feminist marchers hoped to call attention to the problems of violence against women and feminicide by insisting that women want justice for victims, not flowers and accolades, on IWD.  (Men typically give flowers to women for IWD in Bolivia.)  In the most recent issue of their bulletin La Escoba, La Paz-based feminist organization CIDEM estimates that 98 feminicides took place in Bolivia in 2009, 28 of which occurred in La Paz and El Alto.  (A PDF of this bulletin is available here for readers of Spanish: Boletina la escoba 8.  Regular readers may notice that a Spanish-language version of Eugenia’s January post on unsafe abortion appears in the magazine.)

Five groups of family members of recent victims of feminicide attended Monday’s march, most waving red signs bearing pictures of their deceased loved ones.  The woman pictured below is demanding justice for her daughter, who was four months pregnant when she was discovered late last year hanging by a rope in her living room–the main suspect to the crime is her own husband.

The marchers–who, in addition to the family members of victims of feminicide, included activists from local organizations CIDEM, CEPROSI, Gregoria Apaza, and Coordinadora de la Mujer, among others–blocked the street in front of the Ministry of Justice for nearly an hour, calling for the Minister to come out and address the issue of feminicide.  As I have mentioned before, feminist activists in Bolivia are pressing lawmakers to incorporate feminicide into local penal codes, so that perpetrators will be subject to prison sentences of at least 30 years and will be unable to escape on “crime of passion” defenses.

Eventually, it became clear that the Minister–a woman, as many in the crowd were eager to point out–was not going to emerge from the building.  Slowly, the crowd began to disperse, passing around water and candies to the tired marchers.  And then this happened. At the tail end of the march, when only perhaps 30 people remained, most standing on the curb holding a black banner denouncing feminicide, the group of motorcycle cops pictured below rode by and sprayed the line of women in the face with tear gas. The mayhem was immediate–women scattered, some collapsing to the ground, struggling against both gas and altitude to breathe.

Once the women recovered, some joked that the cops had sprayed us with tear gas to wish us a happy International Women’s Day.  “Men give us flowers,” one said, “but if we don’t want their flowers–if we want justice, instead–the cops gas us.”

Eventually, a small commission of women was received by the Minister to talk about the issue of feminicide.  Some say that Minister Torrico is sympathetic to the idea of incorporating the crime of feminicide into legal codes, as other Latin American countries have recently done.  However, it will most likely take a lot more than one supportive minister to change this law.  And unfortunately, we know how President Morales feels about laws protecting women.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

10 de Marzo: Imágenes de Protesta

Posted in Bolivia, images, International Women's Day with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Below are several images of an International Women’s Day protest that took place last Monday in La Paz, Bolivia.  The central idea behind the protest was to insist that women want justice for female victims of violence and feminicide, not flowers, on their “special day.”  The family members of five recent victims of feminicide (murders of women for the simple fact that they are women) were present at the march.

Come back and visit the site this weekend to learn more about the International Women’s Day events that took place this year in Bolivia.

8 de Marzo: Blog por el Día Internacional de la Mujer

Posted in Bolivia, International Women's Day with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), and women and their allies around the world are celebrating in a variety of ways.  On the blogosphere, Gender Across Borders, a feminist blog with an international focus, is hosting “Blog for International Women’s Day.” (Click here for a full list of participating blogs.)  This year’s theme for IWD is “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all,” and participants in Blog for IWD are being asked to write about what this phrase means to us.

To me, the phrase “equal rights, equal opportunity” immediately conjures up a number of important goals in gender equity that, in most countries, have yet to be met: gender parity in government and in other arenas of decision-making and power; equal pay for equal work, and dozens of others.  These goals are immensely important and, fortunately, many individuals and organizations around the world are working to realize them.  However, this is not what I want to write about.  After years of speaking with Bolivian women about their daily struggles with gender inequality, I’d like to address a different aspect of “equal rights,” one that likely underlies the majority of concrete inequalities in women’s experience: different ideas about and attitudes toward men and women.

If you were to come to Bolivia and ask any random woman on the street what the situation is like for women in the country, I would bet money that she would tell you that there is a lot of machismo in Bolivia.  Many men would probably concur.  And yet, I doubt you would find many individuals who would assert that there is a lot of sexismo in Bolivia.

To most Bolivians, it seems, machismo refers to those idiosyncratic, slightly annoying, but mostly harmless attitudes displayed by men who feel they are superior to women.  Although to your average western feminist, and probably to a lot of western men, the above definition sounds a lot like the stuff that sexism is made of, in Bolivia, these attitudes have become so normal and so normalized, that calling Bolivian men machista is something that even many men are willing to do.

Sexism, on the other hand, has another, slightly scarier, ring, and few are willing to pronounce the word.  Sexism, unlike machismo, is a word that carries political weight, that makes local women feel they are “complaining” about something, and that implies a call to action.  Sexism—a term used in Bolivia to refer to those more concrete gender inequities I mentioned at the top of the post, when it is used at all—is not really normalized, as machismo is, but neither is it recognized by society at large.

It’s time to wake up: machismo is sexismoUnequal ideas about appropriate male and female behavior, about who men and women are—psychologically or biologically, and about what men and women deserve, are what justify, legitimize, and normalize unequal rights and unequal opportunities for men and women. So, this is what “equal rights, equal opportunity: progress for all” means to me—it means recognizing that ideas about sexual difference are constructed, not natural, and it means exposing the lies that these ideas represent.

Below are a number of visions of what “equal rights, equal opportunity” might look like in Bolivia.  These visions are based upon the unequal ideas about and attitudes toward women and men that I have witnessed in La Paz and El Alto since 1999.

She can have multiple sexual partners, as he can, and not be considered a slut while he is considered a stud.  They can both just be considered sexually active human beings.

He can wash dishes, clean clothes, and help take care of his children without being considered a “sissy” by his male friends.

She can buy condoms and be prepared for sex, and not be considered “easy.”

She can run for political office without being considered laughable, nor facing violence or threats.

He and his female partner can chose to not have children without his virility being questioned.

She can have male friends and acquaintances without being accused of sexual infidelity by her male partner.

She can choose abortion without being considered a murderer, a bad mother, or a “cold woman.”

She can have sex with women, without being sexually exoticized nor labeled as politically extreme.

She can be considered just as capable as a man when driving or working in construction.

She can go out at night and drink with friends, and not be considered guilty or “asking for it” if she is raped.

She can go out at night, or in the morning, or at any time of day–and NOT be raped.

Thank you to the Bolivian women who have shared their experiences with me, and to all of the women around the world who make me wake up every day still believing that change is possible. ( The above photograph was provided by a guest photographer.)

6 de Marzo: Y…la Juana Azurduy estaría de acuerdo?

Posted in Bolivia, health care with tags , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

A few days ago, the Inter Press Service News Agency published an article on Bolivia’s controversial “Bono Juana Azurduy,” a state subsidy that pays pregnant women to go to public health centers, instead of having their children at home.  The Bono grants women a total of about $250US that is distributed in 17 separate payments when women present for prenatal visits, for the birth of the child, and for routine check-ups in the first two years of the child’s life.  Although you would not know it by reading this article, the subsidy–named after a famous female revolutionary leader who commanded patriot forces against the Spanish in Bolivia’s battle for independence–has drawn considerable criticism from some sectors of the women’s rights and healthcare communities in Bolivia.

According to the Ministry of Health, the purpose of the Bono, which was introduced in 2009, is to reduce maternal mortality rates by encouraging women to have their children in health centers rather than in the home.  Bolivia’s maternal mortality rate is the second-highest in Latin America ( after Haiti), taking the lives of 222 women per 100,000 live births.  The leading causes of maternal death in Bolivia are believed to be hemorrhage, eclampsia, and complications from abortion.  The Bono Juana Azurduy is effective in 98% of the country’s municipalities, and operates in conjunction with a universal maternal-child insurance program (called the SUMI), so that all costs of pregnancy and childbirth are shouldered by the state.

So, what’s the problem with the Bono?  Apart from any philosophical criticisms one may have for paying women to go to the doctor, it is clear in that the program has put additional stress on a state health system that was already struggling.  By creating incentives for women to go to health posts without increasing staff or other resources at these centers, the program is leading to overworked doctors and nurses and to a poorer quality of care.  The IPS article notes that the numbers of pregnant women visiting health centers has increased by a factor of six since the introduction of the Bono.  Some women report waiting several hours to be seen after traveling large distances to get to the centers.  As former Minister of Health Ramiro Tapia said, “‘At the moment there is a gap between the good intentions and the day-to-day running of the programme.'”

Apart from its poor functioning, some members of feminist and community health groups take issue with the intentions of the Bono Juana Azurduy, arguing that it represents an attempt by the state to control women’s reproduction, by influencing how and when they have children.  Activists working to protect the rights of indigenous women to practice traditional pregnancy rituals and birth techniques argue that the Bono is designed to discourage women from giving birth at home with the assistance of midwives.  Many women prefer to give birth at home, where a midwife will help them to keep their bodies warm with blankets, hot chocolate, and soup, and where they are permitted to give birth in the traditional squatting position.  Women often report being scared of western medical providers and facilities, where they say they are prevented from crying out in pain, forced to give birth on their backs in cold hospital rooms, and left for hours following labor without being served anything to eat.  Although the financial incentive of the Bono has led more women to go to health posts, activists argue that little has been done to reduce discrimination against indigenous patients or to take their birth and pregnancy preferences into account.

Organizations fighting for the decriminalization of abortion contend that the Bono also represents an attempt by the state to reduce illegal abortion rates by providing incentives for women to continue their pregnancies.  If true, activists believe that this impulse has more to do with improving Bolivia’s reputation internationally than with improving local women’s lives.  As I have mentioned previously in the blog, unwanted pregnancy and abortion rates are higher in Bolivia than in any other country in the region, aside from Haiti, which government officials may feel “reflects poorly” on the country.  However, providing women with a subsidy of $258US over a period of three years does little to offset the long-term costs of raising a child until adulthood, and will most likely have no impact on abortion rates–or on maternal deaths due to abortion.

Since the Bono’s namesake, Juana Azurduy, lived about 200 years ago and historical sources on her are somewhat scarce, it is difficult to imagine how she would feel about the recent maternal-child subsidy.  We know that Azurduy spent some time in a convent as an adolescent, but her rebellious behavior had her kicked out.  We know that she had a daughter and several sons, and evidently participated in combat against the Spanish during the course of her pregnancies.  Did Azurduy ever rely on a midwife to deliver her child?  Did she ever have an abortion?  Did she feel she controlled her own reproduction–and was this even important to her?  How would she feel, I wonder, to know that her name–and feminist and revolutionary legacy–are being used to characterize this Bono, which some see as a government incursion into women’s reproductive autonomy?

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, Monday, March 8 is International Women’s Day.  To commemorate the date, feminist blog Gender Across Borders is hosting “Blog for International Women’s Day,” for which Eugenia de Altura and dozens of other blogs will be reflecting on the theme of “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity: Progress for All.”  So, come back and visit the site this Monday, and check out all the other blogs that are participating in the event.

3 de Marzo: Están invitad@s

Posted in Bolivia, International Women's Day with tags , , , , , , , on March 3, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

I’d like to invite anyone who is currently in La Paz, Bolivia, to attend an event on the evening of Monday, March 8, commemorating International Women’s Day. At 18:30hs (6:30pm) on Monday, the Women’s Documentary Center “Adela Zamudio” of local feminist organization CIDEM, in cooperation with the Documentary Center in Latin American Art and Literature (CEDOAL), will be holding an event recognizing local women for their work in poetry, film and radio. Please join us at the Espacio Simón I. Patiño on Av. Ecuador 2475, at the corner of Belisario Salinas in Sopocachi. I hope you all have a fabulous International Women’s Day!

Invitation: Event Flyer