Archive for the women Category

29 de Marzo: Es una buena idea

Posted in Bolivia, HIV/AIDS, Latin America, reproductive rights, sexuality, women on March 29, 2012 by eugeniadealtura

Compañer@s: This is a good idea.

Today, La Paz’s La Razón reported that, in a recent forum that brought together young people from over 50 different organizations around the country, Bolivia’s youth demanded that individuals under the age of 18 be allowed to access HIV tests without the permission of their parents–and that this testing be free of charge.  This is a good idea.  On the one hand, recent studies reveal that rates of HIV in Bolivia are increasing most rapidly among the under-18 population.  On the other hand, my own research in La Paz and El Alto indicates that few adolescents feel comfortable talking with their parents about their love lives–much less sex, condom use, or STIs.

The demands of Bolivia’s youth, which were articulated at a forum on sexual and reproductive rights organized by the European Union, in addition to other groups, will be presented for government review on April 3–although it is unclear in what form.  At the same time, a municipal law is currently being considered to introduce HIV testing to a greater number of local health care centers, as well as to promote educational campaigns about the disease.

Initiatives such as these are sumamente importante in a country such as Bolivia, where many women reach menarche, and even become pregnant, before they have even learned what a period is.  Social attitudes toward contraception, pregnancy, and courtship in the country are certainly changing, with an increasing proportion of parents speaking with their kids about sex.  However, sexual behaviors may be changing even more rapidly.  A number of medical doctors in Bolivia commented to me during interviews that, over the past 15 years, they have delivered a greater number of babies to adolescent women than ever before.  With kids having sex younger and younger–and yet, still not feeling comfortable speaking with their parents about these experiences–Bolivia’s youth should have the right to take care of themselves.  I sincerely hope that this & other laws allowing minors to access contraceptives and STI testing without parental approval–and to assume control of their sexual and reproductive lives–pass.  It’s the right thing to do.


15 de Agosto: Noticias

Posted in abortion, Argentina, birth control, Bolivia, Latin America, reproductive rights, women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, a variety of news bits on Bolivia and reproductive rights around the world.

First, a story of social and political conflict in Bolivia’s Potosí department, where for the past 18 days, strikers have blocked roads and led social protests in the area.  Protestors are attempting to hold the Evo Morales government responsible for a number of projects that, although promised some time ago, have scarcely advanced.  The projects include an the construction of an international airport in the city of Potosí, the establishment of a new cement factory in the region, and government preservation of the historic Cerro Rico–the mountain pictured below whose silver deposits essentially financed the Spanish conquest of Latin America over 500 years ago.

The Andean Information Network (AIN) interprets recent protests in Potosí as evidence that Evo Morales’ traditional bases of support are disappointed with the administration’s failure to keep its promises.  While the Morales government often describes protests as led by the right wing, the AIN notes that, “seventy-eight percent of Potosí voters chose Morales in the 2009 presidential elections, second only to voters in the La Paz department.”  La Paz’s paper La Razón reports today that a variety of officials of the Morales government have been in negotiations with the Potosí protestors, and that some progress has been made on at least one point of contention, the plan to construct an airport.  However, hunger strikes and street blockades have continued, since five other major grievances have not yet been addressed.  Meanwhile, in the city of Potosí, families have been subsisting largely on noodles and rice, since blockades have prevented meat from reaching local markets.

None of the coverage of the Potosí protests that I have encountered thus far has discussed women’s particular participation in the protests or how women and girls are being affected by the conflicts.  In similar mobilizations in Bolivia, however, women have taken an active role.

This photo of the Cerro Rico mountain and Potosí city courtesy of Gerd Breitenbach, a user of Wikimedia Commons.

As political conflict rages in Bolivia, Argentina received an embarrassingly poor report card last week on women’s reproductive and sexual rights.  Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a 52-page report chronicling, “the many obstacles women and girls face in getting the reproductive health care services to which they are entitled, such as contraception, voluntary sterilization procedures, and abortion after rape.”  Regular readers will remember that these are also common problems in Bolivia.  Their prevalence in Argentina, however, is even more appalling considering that this country’s socioeconomic indicators tower above those of Bolivia, even after the economic crisis of 2000-2001.

Similar to conditions in Bolivia, the report, entitled, “Illusions of Care: Lack of Accountability for Reproductive Rights in Argentina,” notes the high prevalence of illegal abortion, high rates of maternal mortality due to abortion, and the failure of judges and doctors to authorize and perform those abortions that are legal (ie., in cases of rape). Access to contraceptives is also restricted due to a variety of issues, such as long waits at clinics, the (unauthorized) demand that a husband sign for a woman’s sterilization procedure, and financial costs.  These issues–and other, similar ones around the world–prompted one Guardian blogger to call for a UN agency specifically devoted to women. That’s an idea that’s easy to get behind.

The Human Rights Watch report on Argentina can be downloaded here.

The San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Finally, good news from the U.S.A.: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in that country approved a new pill to be used to prevent pregnancy after intercourse. The medication, called “Ella,” is considerably more effective than the morning-after pill that is currently on the market, Plan B.  While Ella will prevent pregnancy for up to 5 days following sex, Plan B is only effective for 3 days, and becomes less effective the later it is taken after the event.

This move by the FDA has been interpreted as “evidence of a shift in the influence of political ideology at the FDA,” since its approval moved more quickly than that of Plan B, and, as one activist mentioned, was “‘based on scientific evidence, not politics.'”  This does not mean that the battle has been won, however–anti-abortion activists have been quick to describe Ella as an abortifacent, and some are planning campaigns against the drug.  At the moment, women can obtain Ella with a prescription from their health care provider at any time, so they can keep a supply at home.  Go get yours today!

29 de Mayo: Una variedad de ironías

Posted in Bolivia, women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, a smattering of news pieces on women and mothers in Bolivia, and a heartening noticia about Bolivia’s neighbor.

Last Thursday was Mother’s Day in Bolivia, and in La Paz, this manifested itself in schoolyards full of children dancing in expensive costumes (that mothers doubtless had to pay for), sales of stuffed bears and other kitschy items, family dinners, and even an evening display of fireworks. Although I was hopeful that the local press would highlight some of the more sinister aspects of motherhood in Bolivia–such as the fact that Bolivia continues to be the most dangerous place in Latin America to undertake the journey of motherhood, with the highest maternal mortality rates in the region–I was, as I often am with the local press, disappointed.

Instead, the La Paz daily La Razón brought us two light-hearted stories for mother’s day, one highlighting a concert for local mothers, and the other discounts to take advantage of when buying gifts for mom.  For anyone unfamiliar with Latin American cultural paradigms, it bears noting that the mother-son relationship is laden with all kinds of real and imagined meanings in Latin America.  Local men often liken their own mothers to the Virgin Mary, and unfavorably compare their girlfriends and wives to this unrealizable model.  Although this pattern can clearly prove disastrous for Latin American women and heterosexual relationships, it can also be kind of funny. All I’m gonna say is, even if you don’t read Spanish, check out the picture of the singers at the mother’s day concert and imagine the mother-son dynamic playing out in the audience last Thursday night.

In addition to the “official” mother’s day articles, La Razón brought us two other stories related to motherhood this week.  The first is the terrible account of a woman whose infant was stolen from a hospital in the city of Santa Cruz just hours after birth.  Although child trafficking is a serious problem in Bolivia, this kidnapping seems to just be a horrible fluke, unrelated to that broader phenomenon.  The article notes that a woman dressed in white took the baby from its mother’s room saying that she was going to have it vaccinated, and then disappeared.  Oddly–considering that Romani are not known to live in Bolivia–police believe that the kidnapper is a “foreign woman, a gypsy.”

This infant’s kidnapper could indeed have been a foreigner to Bolivia. Regardless, however, the belief that a kidnapper of Bolivian children is foreign speaks to another cultural paradigm in Bolivia, one with deep historical roots–that of the pishtaco. In Andean lore, pishtacos are typically white, man-like creatures that harvest indigenous bodies for profit.  When the railroad first barreled through the Bolivian countryside at the turn of the twentieth century, indigenous campesinos believed that pishtacos would suck fat out from their bellies and use this to grease the rails.  (If your interest is piqued, I would highly recommend Mary Weismantel’s Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes.)  Cultural paradigms aside, let’s hope police are able to reunite this woman with her child.

This image of La Paz from El Alto’s 16 de Julio market was provided by a guest photographer.

La Razón’s second unofficial mother’s day piece informs us that, from now on, all pregnant women in Bolivia will be required to undergo mandatory HIV and Syphilis testing.  Apparently, “there are 150 children in Bolivia living with HIV/AIDS, and 12 of every 1,000 newborns are infected with congenital syphilis.”  Although reducing STI rates in mothers and infants alike is a goal any right-thinking individual would support, I am, as I have mentioned before, wary of programs that force or coerce women to seek health care.  These programs are often intrusive, and do not generate enough patient trust in health care facilities to bring them through the door.  The current article does not share any details on how mandatory testing will be implemented, but so far, I am skeptical.  Stay tuned for more details.

Finally, the kick-ass women at Women on Waves bring us some good news about Peru: on May 27, Lima’s Collective for Free Information for Women (CLIM) announced the introduction of a new telephone hotline for women seeking information about medical abortion, or the “abortion pill.”  Free hotlines such as this one are key in countries where abortion is illegal, since many desperate women take medications to terminate pregnancy without the necessary medical information to make these procedures safe.  Since 350,000 women in Peru are estimated to abort illegally every year, this hotline could play a crucial role in reducing maternal deaths due to abortion.  Congrats, CLIM!

And to women everywhere: happy Mother’s Day.  Here’s to all the work that you do, and to supporting your right to decide when, and if, to do it.

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.”

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.

25 de Noviembre: Alteñas de Pie

Posted in Bolivia, violence against women, women with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by eugeniadealtura

This November 25, several hundred women and girls, along with their male allies, descended on the city center of La Paz, Bolivia, from their homes and offices in El Alto.  To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, integrantes of various women’s organizations, as well as many unaffiliated individuals, carried letreros and banners calling for an end to physical, psychological, and sexual violence against women and girls.

A report released in 2008 by the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 70% of women in Bolivia suffer some form of violence (La Prensa, 26/11/09, La Paz, Bolivia).  In focus groups and workshops organized by the local women’s organization, el Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer (CIDEM), many women argue that violence against women in the country is somewhat accepted, or at least tolerated, because of widespread machista attitudes and sexist beliefs.  For example, one woman complained that when she took her husband to trial for years of domestic abuse, the judge asked her, “And well, ma’am, were you neglecting your cooking and cleaning duties in the home?”  Other women note that their partners attempt to excuse their acts of violence by arguing that they were drunk when they beat or raped their wives or girlfriends.

Of course, the causes (and consequences) of gender-based violence are very complex and cannot be explained in simple terms.  In her book, Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), anthropologist Lesley Gill argues that one of the factors contributing to male-on-female violence in Bolivia is men’s service in the military in their late-teens and early-twenties.  The training and socialization that men undergo during compulsory military service, says Gill, fosters myths of male superiority and often leads male soldiers to abuse their family members and partners upon their return to civilian life.  Violence within the family, however, is not solely the fault of men or of state-mandated military service–several organizations working to combat violence in Bolivia note high rates of parental violence against children, which is perpetrated by fathers and mothers alike.

For many of the marchers, salir a la calle to protest violence against women represented an act of personal vindication that allowed them to express their anger about having suffered violence in their own lives.  For instance, the marcher pictured below (with her permission), suffered acute health problems as a result of her husband’s beatings.  After she sought help from a local organization providing legal and psychological support to women, this marcher was able to get her partner to cease his acts of violence; he ended up accompanying her on this march.  This form of resolution may seem unacceptable to some.  However, it seems to me that one of the most desirable outcomes of work on non-violence and personal empowerment is to create the necessary conditions for women to design and to live their lives with autonomy.  Although we may still fall far short of reaching this goal, this marcha gave women, girls, and their allies in Bolivia the chance to make visible what all to often remains invisible.

Aside from giving women the opportunity to publicly protest their own experiences of violence, this marcha had a variety of objectives.  First, movilizantes hoped to increase local press coverage on the issue of gender-based violence in Bolivia.  In addition, many of the asistentes to the march held signs demanding the inclusion of the crime of “femicide” or “feminicide” into Bolivia’s penal code.  Arguing that many women’s murderers in Latin America serve disturbingly short sentences for their crimes, since these are often designated “homicidio por emoción violenta,” or essentially “crimes of passion,” several women’s rights organizations in the region are pushing for official recognition of feminicide.  Feminicidio, which gained international recognition due chiefly to the murders of women in Guatemala and Mexico, is understood as the murder of women simply because they are women. These murders are usually, but not always, perpetrated by male partners, ex-partners, family members, “friends,” or acquaintances.  Women’s and human rights’ organizations throughout Latin America and elsewhere have struggled, particularly in the last fifteen years, to incorporate feminicide into national penal codes as a hate crime carrying prison terms of at least 25 years.  Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala represent three of the few countries that currently recognize and provide specific punishments for the crime of feminicide.

At about midday on November 25, when we finally reached the city center, a small commission carried a voto resolutivo to the government palace asking for official recognition of feminicide and gender-based violence, and the establishment of specific punishments for perpetrators of these crimes.  About an hour and a half later, a representative of this commission informed the marchers that the voto resolutivo had been approved by the Evo Morales administration.  What this exactly means, however, is still to be determined… While official recognition of gender-based violence is definitely a logro importante–an important victory–discrimination against women in Latin America (and elsewhere) has deep roots and will most likely require both time and persistent work to overcome.