Archive for feminism

21 de Noviembre: Y la violencia sigue…

Posted in Bolivia, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , on November 21, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

For readers of Spanish, this article from La Paz’s La Razón newspaper explores the devastatingly common phenomenon of violence against women in the cities of La Paz and El Alto.

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6 de Noviembre: La feminización del VIH/SIDA

Posted in Bolivia, HIV/AIDS with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

I’d like to apologize to my readers; lately, teaching and research responsibilities have made me unable to update the blog as regularly as I would like.  However, an article published today in La Paz’s La Prensa paper has prompted me to draft this brief post.  The article, entitled, “The La Paz resident with HIV/AIDS is young, male, heterosexual, a worker, and a city dweller,” explores the (growing) phenomenon of HIV/AIDS in the Andean city.  Despite the title of the article, it goes on to explain a trend occurring around the world–the feminization of HIV/AIDS.  Despite the fact that most known HIV/AIDS carriers in Bolivia are male, new cases of the virus are found just as often in women now as in men–particularly among younger generations.

Not surprisingly, local health department official René Barrientos noted that women are likely infected due to the infidelity (and sexual carelessness) of their partners.  “Generally,” states Barrientos, “women who complete domestic tasks are at home and are infected by their partners, since these also pursue sexual liaisons outside the household and then take the infection home.  In absolute numbers, 69 women who work in this area were found positive across the period [of study]…This is alarming because it places the household at risk” (all translations mine).

Barrientos also notes that life expectancy of HIV/AIDS carriers in Bolivia is considerably shorter than that of carriers in other countries, since people often do not know they have the virus.  In July and August of 2010, 38 new cases were discovered in the city of La Paz.  18 of these individuals already had AIDS.

Having spoken with a number of people of different social classes in the cities of La Paz and El Alto about sexual and reproductive health, I am convinced that few people seek testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  In general, the population seems to believe that STIs affect only “dirty,” “promiscuous,” or “sexually deviant” individuals–ie., not them.  Attitudes such as these do not reflect the realities of STI infection and transmission, and typically stem from abstinence-only education and an atmosphere of fear and shame around the discussion of sex.  This article is a good reminder that abstinence-only education, the shaming of sex, the lack of acceptance and availability of condoms, and people’s reluctance to seek STI testing, equal death.

26 de Septiembre: El aborto en México

Posted in abortion, Mexico, reproductive rights with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

When the tide begins to turn for women in Latin America, the right wakes up.  An article in the New York Times this week reports on the growing list of abortion restrictions being passed in states in Mexico since the country’s capital legalized elective abortion some three years ago.

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!

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.