Archive for gender

15 de Junio: Cuando la “promiscuidad” forzada deja indefensos a los más vulnerables

Posted in Bolivia, sexual violence with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by eugeniadealtura

Readers… if you still exist… I apologize for the long hiatus.  Work responsibilities have not allowed me to post to the blog as frequently as I would like, and time limitations will continue to prevent me from commenting in much detail on the posts that I am able to make to the blog.  So, today I write to you humbly with this brief reflection.

Some years ago, when working on a research project on Bolivia’s 1952 national revolution, my interest was piqued by the revolutionary party’s constant complaints of the “promiscuity” of the nation’s rural indigenous populations.  And no, I do not mean sexual promiscuity–although I think the deliberate choice of the word “promiscuous” to describe traditional one-room living quarters was indeed designed to raise concerns about children’s unwitting exposure to their parents’ “marital relations.”  In political pamphlets of the 1950s and early ’60s, journalists and commentators of the nation’s ruling Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) party would frequently denounce the deplorable “promiscuous” living conditions of the poor rural majority, in which parents and children lived in one-room homes in which kitchen and bedroom were one and the same.  In part, revolutionary-era authors complaining of promiscuity revealed sincere humanitarian concern over the  poverty of rural dwellers; at the same time, however, MNRistas often used these complaints to highlight the party’s role in “saving” indigenous populations from their poverty, denying the agency of Indians themselves.

Today, the issue of “residential promiscuity” has come back to haunt us.  Readers in the U.S. and Europe may be shocked to discover that in most of Bolivia’s prisons, the state forces prisoners to live in “the most deplorable promiscuity” with one another–and also allows the live-in presence of inmates’ wives & children.  Institutions such as La Paz’s San Pedro prison and Santa Cruz’s Palmasola prison constitute virtual “prison cities,” where wealthier inmates are able to lease comfortable cells & where less fortunate inmates sleep in the halls of the jail.  Inmates, who may have “jobs” inside the jail–making and peddling food or providing other services–circulate with relative freedom inside these prison cities.  Children and their mothers often leave the prison gates in the morning to attend school or go to work, only to return in the afternoon or evening.  Although sixty years ago members of Bolivia’s ruling party denounced the “promiscuity” of non-criminal rural peoples, now the state allows women and children to live in close quarters with convicted criminals.  Sure, some of those guys are innocent, and some of them were convicted of tax fraud.  But some of them were convicted of rape.

Palmasola Prison, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.  Courtesy of Infosur Hoy.

Case in point (for readers of Spanish).  This week, Cochabamba’s Los Tiempos newspaper reports on the case of 63-year-old Sabino Paredes Condori, an inmate of Santa Cruz’s Palmasola prison who was lynched last Monday night by his fellow inmates.  Paredes allegedly sparked the fury of a mob of inmates after gloating over photos he’d recorded on his cell phone of two naked female children and of unspecified sexual acts.  The two children were daughters of a fellow inmate.  Paredes was in the process of serving a 25-year sentence for rape.  Once inmates were able to steal his cellphone and examine the images, they subjected Paredes to an hours-long ordeal culminating in his hanging.

Despite his heinous crimes, Paredes’ lynching is, of course, horrible.  What concerns me more, however, is the unchecked “promiscuity” of Bolivia’s prisons, in which adolescent girls and boys and their mothers rub elbows in the “city streets” of Palmasola and San Pedro.  Although Los Tiempos alleges that this case has “reopened the old debate of the voluntary presence of inmates’ wives and children in [Bolivian] prisons,” it’s unclear what, if anything, will change.  And funny, that–I thought that “promiscuity” was high on the state’s list of concerns.

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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.

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.

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.

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.