Archive for June, 2010

27 de Junio: No tiene que ver con la suerte

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

Today, two vastly different Bolivian tales that display one reality while concealing another.  First, this morning in the city of La Paz, judges chose this year’s cholita paceña from 16 contestants.  For those not familiar with cholitas, this term designates women, ostensibly of indigenous descent, who wear a typical form of dress consisting of a brightly colored skirt over several layered petticoats, a blouse, a blanket/shawl, and a hat (in La Paz, this is often a bowler hat).  Cholitas typically wear their hair in two long braids connected by woolen hairpiece that keeps the ends of the two braids together. Cholitas are designated women “of skirt,” or de pollera, while other women who wear dresses or pants are called “of dress,” or de vestido.  While indigenous, mestiza, and white women may wear dresses or pants, usually only indigenous women are de pollera.

The yearly contest to choose the cholita paceña (“paceña” simply means that the chosen cholita is from the city of La Paz) is an event designed to pay “homage to the identity of the woman who is de pollera” (all translations mine).  Because wearing the skirt is a designation of indigenous identity, women who are de pollera have suffered discrimination for centuries, and at one point were even refused entry to the city’s central square.  Since the ascendance of indigenous president Evo Morales in 2006, there has been some revalorization of indigenous women’s identity, but many still suffer discrimination.  That is why that this contest is potentially so meaningful.

However, I have a doubt, that hopefully some of my readers will be able to answer: do these women actually dress in the pollera in their daily lives? I ask this not because I am cynical (or, not only because I am so), but because so many other forms of “paying homage to women who are de pollera” have revealed themselves to have little to do with actual skirted women.  For example, take the “cholita wrestling” match.  (If you have never heard of this, just google it–the videos will astound you.)  According to one “cholita” wrestler I met a few months ago, none of the powerful women who wrestle in the traditional outfit of skirt, shawl, and hat dress like cholitas in their daily lives.

On the other hand, maybe this is a legitimate contest only for cholita women. Like many other pseudo-beauty contests for “deviant” or “minority” groups, the competition for the cholita paceña judges not beauty–which perhaps would be too difficult to identify in non-white women [read: sarcastic]–but “spontaneity, that the cholitas are authentic, that they have charisma, and that they know how to speak a native language.”  (For those who might assume that the language requirement would guarantee a woman’s cholita status, think again–most of the country’s population can speak at least one native language in addition to Spanish.)  After all that, what do I wish?  That these women actually are women de pollera, and that they actually are judged for their beauty–why not?  Everyone else is.  (Readers, please post a comment if you know if the women contestants are usually de pollera.)

In far more sinister news, yesterday the La Paz daily La Razón reported on the Friday burial of a 20-year-old woman who was raped and murdered a week ago after leaving a dance club.  (I am painfully aware that this blog has become a sort of observatory for violent crime against women in Bolivia, but forever hopeful that this process of bearing witness will teach us something. And if after hearing the details of this case of violence against María Micaela Vargas Vargas  you feel you have not learned something about Bolivia, then you simply are not listening.)

On June 18, Vargas went out dancing with some friends at a club near the city’s cemetery, a busy market area of La Paz that is not particularly safe at night.  Doubtless aware of this fact, Vargas hopped in a taxi after leaving the club, likely thinking that this would be the safest way to get home.  What happened next?  “According to police reports, the taxi driver was attempting to rape [the woman] when two young men appeared and saved her; however, they took her over by the flower market, across the street from the General Cemetery, [where they] raped and strangled her.” Even more ironic, Vargas was raped in a temporary building erected by police for security purposes.

Take a moment to consider what this means.  That, of two cases of the coincidental crossing of paths–a taxi driver, and the young men who “saved” Vargas–both were disastrous.  That, if you meet–by chance–three men in Bolivia, all of them are likely to rape you.  What does this mean?  This means that this–the “coincidences,” the predatory men–has nothing at all to do with chance. It means that, chances are your average guy in Bolivia is as likely to rape and to kill you, as he is to save you.


20 de Junio: Algunos pequeños avances

Posted in abortion, Bolivia, reproductive rights with tags , , , , on June 20, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, I had the opportunity to speak to the public in Bolivia about unwanted pregnancy and abortion in La Paz and El Alto.  Although time does not permit me to present a full report here, I would like to share with my readership a few important points about these phenomena.  And to those that attended the talk, and to those who could not:  muchísimas gracias a todas las mujeres que abrieron sus corazones para hablar conmigo, y a todos los individuos e instituciones que me aportaron durante los últimos tiempos.  Su apoyo ha sido imprescindible.

– Of a fairly random sample of 55 Bolivian women, 26 (roughly 47%) reported having experienced at least one unwanted pregnancy in their lives.  Of these 26 women, 16 ended up having their children anyway, while 9 underwent illegal abortions.  Of the 16 women who ended up giving birth, several had attempted to abort through various means, including by throwing themselves down flights of stairs and beating themselves in the abdomen.

-Of the sample of 55 women, 12 in total had at least one abortion.  3 of these women were FORCED to abort–two by their partners, and one by her mother.

-Of these 55 women, 5 became pregnant at least one time due to RAPE.

-Of the 12 women who had abortions, only 2 were adolescents at the time of the procedure, and half of the women were married or partnered.  6 of the women continued to have children after their abortions–meaning that abortion is used not only to avoid unwanted pregnancy, but to space wanted pregnancies.

-The majority of women in this sample who had abortions earn less than $214 per month.

-Of four women who went to public hospitals for treatment following incomplete abortions that they admitted were provoked, one had hired a midwife to insert a sound into her cervix; one bought abortifacient herbs in the street, and two went to private (but poor quality) medical clinics near–ironically–the city’s public cemetery.

-Of 50 women who went to the Hospital de la Mujer, a large public hospital, with “miscarriages” during 1994, 50% reported that their miscarriages had been caused by “accidents” such as falls and lifting heavy items.  Most doctors assert that the majority of these accidents are intentional.

-Of a sample of some 25-30 individuals who by law are required to report cases of provoked abortion to authorities, around 70% fail to do so because they do not believe that women who seek abortions, nor the doctors who provide them, should be jailed. The other 30% either doesn’t know they are required to report these cases to the police, or they simply lack the time to do so.

-Of a sample of 113 individuals in total–representing a variety of social sectors, occupations, ages, ethnicities, and income levels–the majority report being against abortion.  At the same time, 95% of this group knows at least one woman who has gotten an abortion, and 100% knows exactly where to go to obtain one.  Several people characterize illegal provoked abortion in Bolivia as, “un secreto a voces,” or, an open secret.

-6 of 10 women in Bolivia will have at least one provoked abortion in her lifetime.  Most of these women will never tell anyone about their abortions.

13 de Junio: Cuando un país también es pobre

Posted in Bolivia, poverty with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week I discovered a few articles that emerged in the Bolivian press over the last several months that reminded me of the stunning variety of personal consequences to national poverty.  So often in this blog, I have identified particular government policies or cultural attitudes that affect Bolivian women, without placing these phenomena within the larger national and regional context.  It is this context that I would like to discuss today.  A context in which we recognize that Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America (with the exception of Haiti).  And when an entire country is poor–not just its citizens–its infrastructure and institutions also suffer.  And suffering institutions, of course, means that many people’s basic needs are not being met.  This is what is happening in Bolivia.

Last January, La Paz’s daily La Prensa reported on striking health care workers at one crumbling local hospital that serves both the urban El Alto and surrounding rural populations.  Situated in the more middle-class, Ciudad Satélite neighborhood of El Alto, the Hospital Municipal Boliviano Holandés–often simply called the Holandés–was opened in 1999 to provide more health care options to alteños and to the rural population that often passes through the city.  According to one social worker I spoke with that works at the hospital, up to 80% of the clientele of the Holandés are rural migrants, many of whom speak exclusively the Aymara indigenous language.  (Most of the hospital staff also speaks Aymara.)

One of the reasons I was surprised to read this article is because, as part of my work in Bolivia, I have spent considerable time at the Holandés and the facility seems comparable to other hospitals in La Paz and El Alto.  Clearly, this is evidence not of the health of the Holandés, but of the deteriorated condition of most Bolivian health care centers.  As the La Prensa reporter notes, “In the pharmacy there are no medications, the [hospital] cots are rusted, they lack anesthesia for operations, there’s no food to give the hospitalized patients, the ambulances do not work, and when it rains, thanks to the broken roofs, there is almost as much water inside as out” (all translations mine).

Even more disturbing, one nurse at the Holandés commented that hospitalized patients–despite the existence of universal basic health insurance in Bolivia–must pay a daily fee for their care.  He notes, “‘The Holandés functions currently as a private clinic.  Whoever needs care has to buy their own medications.'”  Before reading this, I was under the erroneous impression that much had changed since the 1990s, when women seeking treatment for incomplete abortions would be left waiting sometimes for days in their hospital beds until they could afford to pay for the dilation and curettage or the manual vacuum aspirator procedure they required.  The deteriorated condition of the Holandés is taking its toll on both patients and staff.  Said one worker, “‘It’s been two months since they have paid our salaries, but this isn’t that important…The most serious [problem] is that…the infrastructure [of the hospital] is very deteriorated.”

Patient medical records stuffed into boxes are kept in this storage room in one local hospital.

Our second story of crumbling Bolivian institutions comes this week from Cochabamba, where one Defensoría de la Niñez lacks the necessary staff to investigate all of the cases it receives.  In Bolivia, the Defensorías are public institutions responsible for seeing cases of mistreatment of minors–including rape, physical and psychological violence, and abandonment.  These agencies are also instrumental in facilitating the adoptions of abandoned and orphaned children, since the Defensorías provide children with the personal documentation and the court order of release necessary to be adopted.  That is to say, when these institutions are not falling apart, they perform these functions.

In La Paz and El Alto, too, the Defensorías are facing difficulties.  As minors are becoming more familiar with their rights, more and more cases of mistreatment–particularly of rape of adolescent girls–are arriving at these institutions, and most lack the resources to deal with the cases effectively. Most of the safehouses where adolescent rape survivors could be placed are already over-burdened, and the foster system in Bolivia is so inefficient as to be almost useless.  Despite working long hours, most Defensoría staff feel unable to meet the needs of community members–and these community members, for their part, often opt not to report cases of abuse when they know they will face long lines and little follow-up.  I will never forget what one Defensoría worker told me when I called her to request an interview; she said: “Sure, come whenever you want–I’m here 24 hours a day.”

In any country affected by crushing poverty, women (and children) are generally hit the hardest.  Often dependent upon their male partners and extended families, and facing machista attitudes and sexist discrimination, women must struggle harder to achieve financial and social independence for themselves and their children.  However, women’s struggles do not occur in a vacuum.  The same phenomena that daily test women also test all Bolivians–patients and hospital workers, children and parents, government officials and social workers.  There are a few wealthy folks that escape, but many are in the same boat.  Because when it’s an entire country that’s poor, most discover that the effects of poverty trickle down to all.

6 de Junio: Una culpa compartida

Posted in Bolivia, child trafficking with tags , , , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, the BBC reported that a woman in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, was arrested for selling her newborn to a 35-year-old woman unable to have children of her own. Initially, the new mother pretended that her child had been snatched from the hospital, but later she admitted to selling the baby. (Note that this is not the same story of infant kidnapping that I reported on last week–in that case, the woman’s child was indeed stolen.)  Police have arrested both parties to the “baby sale,” and are now debating the future custody of the child.

Child trafficking is a serious problem in Bolivia and comes in a variety of forms, many a great deal more sinister than this case of a mother selling her child to a women who ostensibly wanted to raise it as her own.  What I would like to address, however, is not child trafficking, but another, far more prevalent problem in Bolivia: men’s abandonment of women with whom they have conceived children.  You see, when asked why she decided to sell her baby, the reluctant mother, Jesusa Molle, replied that, “she had been abandoned by her husband and could not afford to support the child.”  This comment–added as a sort of afterthought in this BBC article–in fact points to a ubiquitous crime in Bolivia.  Not surprisingly, those who commit it enjoy almost complete impunity.

For her crime, which will be labeled “child trafficking,” Molle, if convicted, will likely face years in prison.  And her husband?  The man whose actions may have contributed to this act of desperation will likely remain free.  Few know that Bolivia’s penal code stipulates a prison sentence of 6 months to 2 years (or a hefty fine) for men who abandon their families.  If the wife or girlfriend is pregnant at the time of the abandonment–and if she sells her child as a result–the man faces one to five years in jail. And yet, few men are ever punished for abandoning their partners and children.  In Bolivia, the impunity that these men enjoy is so common that the BBC reporter did not even find it relevant to mention that Molle’s abandonment also constituted a crime. And, I mean, why would you mention it?  In addition to being common, the abandonment of women and children is also simply not as flashy as baby selling.

I do not mean to condone or to defend Molle’s actions, although any woman who sells her infant for US$140 is clearly facing desperate circumstances. Instead, I would like to denounce the lack of impunity for those far more prevalent, albeit less “sexy,” crimes that often lead to acts of “child trafficking” such as this one.  Let’s place blame where blame is due: on Molle, yes, but also, on her husband.