26 de Septiembre: Hasta en las ciudades…

Posted in Bolivia, health care with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Earlier this week, the UK’s Guardian released a video chronicling the efforts of UNICEF representatives and their local allies to improve sanitation and access to clean water in Bolivia’s rural communities.  The video features interviews with Bolivian community members about the frequency of child death due to diarrhea and describes recent latrine construction projects in what looks like the country’s temperate and tropical regions in the east.  Sanitation projects in the area are being undertaken by UNICEF in an effort to speed progress on the UN’s “Millennium Development Goal” 7: to decrease the population lacking access to clean water and sanitation services by half by 2015 (the MDGs were established in 2001).

The infamous “camino de la muerte,” on which this truck is driving, carries travelers between La Paz and rural communities in the Yungas.

The state of sanitation services in Bolivia is undoubtedly the worst in rural areas, where lack of running water and sewer systems make illness frequent, even for the most dedicated of hand-washers.  If UNICEF truly wants to speed progress on MDG 7 in Bolivia, however, it would be wise to install potable water in city taps, and to support hand washing in cities, as well as rural areas.

In La Paz and El Alto, the majority of Bolivians buy their produce and other food stuffs in busy outdoor markets lacking adequate bathroom facilities.  Vendors and customers have to pay .50Bs to visit public toilets where, even if there is running water, soap is rare.  Market-goers then handle produce, passing whatever bichos they may have acquired at toilets on to consumers back at home. While it is standard practice in these cities to wash fruits and veggies before eating them, most use tap water to do so–a water that is so contaminated that it often emerges from the tap smelling of sewage.

This health care facility sits right above a public market.  The fact that hand washing is rare in both arenas provides ample opportunity to spread communicable disease.

Even more distressing, many hospitals and clinics in La Paz and El Alto fail to provide adequate sanitation services to patients and their families.  Over the past couple of years, my work has taken me for several hours each week to both public and private medical facilities in La Paz and El Alto. At the public hospitals I visited, neither public nor staff bathrooms provided toilet paper or soap to users. This means that not only patients’ families, but likely medical personnel had a hand in passing illness on to patients with vulnerable immune systems.  At one private clinic I visited in El Alto, three pans of blood and human tissue lay on the floor in the corner of the bathroom, ostensibly standing in for legitimate biohazard containers.  I was lucky to not have tripped over them and spilled them on the way to the toilet.

Poor hygienic conditions in Bolivia have often been explained in racist terms by policy makers and other professionals who pointed the finger at the country’s “dirty Indians” as vectors of disease transmission.  Arguments that indigenous populations were “naturally filthy” or resistant to personal hygiene were often promoted by western doctors attempting to push indigenous midwives and traditional medicine practitioners from the country’s health care scene.

The above observations, however, reveal a different truth: Bolivia’s western, state-run hospitals lack proper sanitation infrastructure.  Doctors, nurses, and patients alike are denied the tools they need to ensure their own and others’ safety.  And this is occurring not just in rural communities miles from the nearest “modern” clinic–this is happening in your mother’s, your sister’s, or your daughter’s hospital room in the center of La Paz city.

27 de Agosto: No se necesita receta

Posted in Bolivia, health care, sexuality, United States with tags , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week at Womanist Musings, I’ve written a post on the difference in over-the-counter access to drugs and other items in the U.S. versus Latin America, particularly Bolivia. What inspired the posting?  A visit to a U.S. pharmacy where customers can now purchase vibrating sex toys right off the shelf, without visiting a sex toy store or buying online.  Check out the posting here.

25 de Agosto: El aborto y la inmigración

Posted in abortion, blogging, immigration, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

I would like to bring to my readers’ attention a few articles that have emerged in the last couple of weeks highlighting the particularly vulnerable situation of immigrant women seeking access to reproductive health care, especially abortion.  In light of recent debates in the U.S. on immigration reform, including the anti-immigration legislation passed in Arizona and other states, it seems particularly important to consider how these policies affect the reproductive rights of women immigrants.  In general, the forecast is not good–while ABC News notes that immigrant women are frequently  customers of “cheap, do-it-yourself abortion,” guest writer Marcy Bloom of the blog “Trust Women” points to the dual attacks of the right on immigration and reproductive rights.  I encourage you all to read these pieces, and join in on the debates.

22 de Agosto: ‘A pesar de su belleza…’

Posted in Bolivia, Press with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

You may have heard that, in Bolivia, a “beauty queen” has recently been named to a major government position in the “war on drugs.”  Last Sunday, Andrés Schipani and Rory Carroll of The Observer reported on the appointment of British-born, Bolivian-raised Jessica Anne Jordan Burton to post of viceroy of the tropical Beni province, where Jordan’s principal responsibility will ostensibly be “cleaning up the drug-infested” region. Describing Jordan as a “former model and beauty queen” who has never occupied public office, the authors assert that the new viceroy “cuts a[n]…incongruous figure.” Accompanied by a photo of the appointee with her fist raised in “determination,” the article repeatedly juxtaposes Jordan’s beauty with the raw, rugged character of her new position–a position which, the authors imply, inserts her into “a macho, brutal world where grim-faced soldiers [battle] ruthless narco-traffickers.”

Fortunately, the Andean Information Network (AIN) was not long in correcting the multiple mischaracterizations of this article, some focusing on Jordan, and others on Bolivia’s drug policy.  Regular readers know that I am hesitant to endorse Bolivian president Evo Morales’ appointment of women to public office. In general, it seems that Morales elevates just those women who he can easily manipulate, many of whom lack relevant experience, only to satisfy a quota system of his own design.  In this case, however, The Observer’s characterization of Jordan as simply a beauty queen who “has never held previous public office” omits important details, which the AIN corrects in its August 16 brief.

Bolivian indigenous women attend the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Tiquipaya, on the outskirts of Cochabamba, April 20, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado (BOLIVIA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT POLITICS)
Image courtesy of PicApp.

According to the AIN, Evo’s appointment of Jordan to the position of “Beni Director of Border Development” represents a typical practice of Bolivian administrations of “[appointing] leaders who lost in national elections” to positions within the government. Apparently, despite having never held a public office, Jordan lost a recent election for the governorship of the Beni by only 3%.  The AIN also criticizes Schipani and Carroll for misrepresenting Jordan’s new position, which, far from catapulting her to the status of “figurehead in Bolivia’s…campaign against cocaine barons,” actually places her in charge of border control in all of its forms–including monitoring and fighting “illicit trafficking, corruption, poverty and ‘illegal logging and gold mining’.”

These misrepresentations of the UK press are truly disappointing, seeming to draw on and to exploit a variety of stereotypes about women and our roles.  (This, without even delving into The Observer article’s problematic portrayal of Bolivia’s drug policies, described in the AIN piece.)

First, Schipani and Carroll do a disservice to Jordan by disregarding her background in politics and by insinuating that her prior participation in beauty contests and modeling–and, by extension, her beauty itself–makes her ill-prepared for public office.  Second, the authors’ mischaracterization of Jordan’s new position as an anti-drug Indiana Jones who will be battling drug barons left and right in the “jungles” of Bolivia is likely meant to eroticize her by evoking images of a scantily clad Xena-like warrior fighting crime.  Since the article further portrays Jordan’s post as dangerous, her quoted statements on her attitude toward the post–serene, in comparison–make her seem naive, like she could not possibly know what she is getting herself into.

What it comes down to is this: Schipani and Carroll are more interested in crafting a racy story about a beauty-queen-turned-drug-buster than in Jordan’s real qualifications and recent appointment to office.  As it is for so many women, Jordan’s beauty is both a requirement of her acceptance into “real” womanhood, and the reason her abilities are doubted.  I, for one, am interested in the outcome of this most recent appointment of a woman to office in Bolivia.  Press reports on Jordan’s progress, however, will likely be hard to find–once she gets down to the job, fully clothed and more often at a desk than hanging from a jungle vine, journalists like Schipani and Carroll will probably lose interest.

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!

8 de Agosto: El aborto en las Filipinas

Posted in abortion, blogging, reproductive rights on August 8, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

A new report by the Center for Reproductive Rights entitled, “Forsaken Lives: The Harmful Impact of the Philippine Criminal Abortion Ban,” chronicles the severe consequences to women of that country’s ban on abortion in all circumstances. Marcy Bloom, of Mexican reproductive rights group GIRE, has written an excellent article on the report here.

This photo of Palawan, in the Philippines, provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

6 de Agosto: Lo que no sabemos nos dañará

Posted in Bolivia, sexuality with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, UK-based Independent Television News (ITN) reported on Bolivia’s first-ever hosting of the “Miss Transvestite South America” beauty contest.  The contest included male-to-female (MTF) trans contestants from Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other South American nations.  Evidently, organizers had a difficult time raising the necessary funds for the event, which nearly prevented it from moving forward, but the contest was saved when the La Paz city government pitched in.  This video—despite carelessly confusing the concepts “trans” and “gay”—shows colorful snippets of the contest, and in one scene, breathtaking views of La Paz, Bolivia.

It strikes me as rather odd that I have chosen to write about this event, and the themes it raises, since I know little of the reality of being trans in Latin America.  But also, I suppose that it is that fact—that we do know so little about trans life in the region, that there is so little visibility around it—that prompts me to write.  This piece, therefore, is designed to spark reflection and elicit your thoughts broadly on sexual diversity in Latin America, rather than teach you something new.

Bolivia, like most countries in Latin America, is marked by machista attitudes that threaten the lives and health of women in general, and people who do not conform to traditional gender/sexual roles and identities, in particular.  This machismo is visible and palpable.  I feel it walking down the street.  I witness it in the way young couples argue in La Paz parks, the men threateningly leaning in to the women’s personal space.

Machismo is also visible, however, in the very way it makes dissent invisible. In Bolivia—where rates of sexual and domestic violence against women top those of other Latin American countries—I have never seen an openly gay couple walking down the street.  Or in a bar.  Or anywhere else.  I do know of a few bars and cafés in La Paz that specifically cater to gays, and there are certainly some activists working for gay rights in the city, but compared to North America or Europe, gay life remains in the shadows.  Like other kinds of dissenters, gays and lesbians are often considered “funny” or downright “crazy.”  As I noted several weeks ago, typical residents of La Paz describe the local feminist group Mujeres Creando as “extreme,” but when pressed to explain this characterization, simply point to the fact that a few of the group’s members are lesbians.

In terms of trans folks, any awareness of their existence in La Paz is limited to comedic representations of men dressed as women, but never accepted as women.  A popular television character in La Paz consists of a light-skinned man dressed as a cholita, or indigenous woman—adopting and exploiting not only female, but indigenous, identity for laughs.  Female-to-male representations are altogether absent in La Paz, perhaps reflecting the cultural and social distance between women and men in Bolivia (ie., a cisman becoming a woman is a step down on the social scale, and easier to pull off than the reverse).  At one meeting of women activists I attended this year in La Paz, the entire concept of trans identity was discussed as if it consisted exclusively of the MTF experience.

My last point signals a glaring reality in Bolivia: that even those of us who are progressive, who work for women’s rights, and are concerned with the welfare and equality of all people, know way too little about the reality of gays, lesbians, and trans folks.  This is probably also true of other realities, such as that of people living with disabilities.  I am, for one, ashamed of my ignorance; however, that ignorance also sparks me to action.  Today, more than ever, I welcome your comments & questions.