Archive for justice

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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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.

8 de Mayo: No tiene que ver con el agua

Posted in Bolivia, sexual violence with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, two brief but terrible stories about sexual violence in El Alto, Bolivia.  First, “a thirteen-year-old boy has been accused of attempting to rape a seven-year-old girl” in an El Alto school building.  A week later, police arrested a 24-year-old man for allegedly raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl who he claims was his “girlfriend.”  Evidently, “the mother of the minor realized that her daughter was pregnant” and reported the crime.

ENOUGH with violence against women.

There is so much to unpack in these two brief notes that it is difficult to know where to begin. First, there is the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence against women in Bolivia. Reproductive rights organization IPAS reports that “four of ten Bolivian women have suffered some form of sexual violence.”  Often, women suffer sexual violence at the hands of their lovers and husbands, upon whom they and their children may be financially dependent, and so do not report the crimes.  Other women who are raped by strangers or acquaintances also may fail to report the attacks due to fears that police or family members may blame them, rather than their aggressors. This means that actual rates of sexual violence may be much higher.  IPAS director Eliana Del Pozo also notes that few rape cases that women do report actually make it to the courts, much less result in convictions.

Why do so many men sexually assault women in Bolivia?  The guarantee of impunity alone cannot explain it.  In Bolivia–where until recently a married woman had to obtain the signature of her husband in order to undergo a tubal ligation–machismo dictates that women’s bodies belong to men.  Sexism permeates much home life in Bolivia, so that young boys learn from an early age that they enjoy privileges that their sisters and mothers do not.  Although we do not know much about the background of the thirteen-year-old who nearly raped a child in an El Alto school, the culture of machismo alone in Bolivian (and Latin American) society makes these incidents more common here than in many other countries.

An advertisement for a church-led seminar on violence in families.

In the case of the 15-year-old rape survivor, fear also seem to have played a role in delaying the aggressor’s arrest.  As the article notes, the girl’s attacker threatened her family with violence if she ever revealed the rape.  Only six months later (most likely when she was no longer able to hide her pregnancy) did the girl’s mother discover that her daughter was pregnant and file the report for the crime.

Even in cases where an attacker does not threaten his victim’s family, young women in Bolivia often fear to tell their parents that they have been raped since so many are blamed for provoking men’s advances.  If an adolescent girl becomes pregnant in Bolivia, whether through rape or consensual sex, her parents often hold her accountable for the pregnancy and excuse the man involved.  Many women I have spoken with who became pregnant at an early age report that they waited months before telling their parents, since parents are often very concerned with the que dirán de la gente, or, of what people will say.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the community police force in Bolivia, a special division of the police that engages with average folks through personal interventions and community orientations on a variety of topics.  According to these six men, rising rape rates in the busy, La Paz market district of Max Paredes are due to an increase in adolescent drinking.  Although alcohol abuse doubtless exacerbates many social problems, I find adolescent drinking a poor explanation for the high prevalence of rape in Bolivia.  The truth is, if a man would not rape a women sober, he would not rape a woman drunk.  If when sober, a man does not believe that a woman owes him something, or that her body is his property, he is unlikely to develop these beliefs after five or six cervezas. Let’s face it–the propensity to rape is not something that’s in the water, or in any other beverage.  It’s something that’s in the machismo.

13 de Febrero: Mejor no hablemos de excusas

Posted in Bolivia, Press, sexual violence, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Back in November 2009, my first-ever post to this blog reflected on the problem of violence against women in Bolivia.  For the past few years, feminist activists in Bolivia have been pressuring lawmakers to incorporate the term feminicidio into legal codes, to prevent men who kill their wives, girlfriends, exes, sisters, cousins, etc., from getting off with “crime of passion” defenses.  A crime of passion defense usually reads like this: “Your honor, I was just so angry and heartbroken when I heard that Fulana was [insert actual or suspected infidelity here], that I just couldn’t control myself, and I [insert violent crime here].”  At last year’s march commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, one of the slogans we shouted until hoarse was, “No es crimen pasional–es asesinato.” (It’s not a crime of passion–it’s murder.)

For those of us who believe that men and women are indeed equal and that both have the unalienable right to live without violence, these crime of passion defenses seem laughable–or they would, if they weren’t so dangerous.  Then, why do they work?  Who or what contributes to the legitimacy of this type of defense in Bolivian society?

One culprit is undoubtedly machismo and the double standards that it engenders–ie., he cheats with impunity, but she can’t even have male friends; he has a job and a social life, while she is confined to the home and to the production of offspring.  As I’ve mentioned several times before, machismo in Bolivia is fierce, and seemingly endemic to both home and professional life in the country.

So, in part, we have everyday interactions between Bolivian men and women to thank for crime of passion defenses.  But perhaps more perilously, we also have the press.  This week, the La-Paz daily La Razón covered the story of one man’s brutal murder of a sex worker in an El Alto motel room. (As always, all translations are my own.)  Evidently, when the young woman Zulma Apaza refused to have sex with her would-be client, he strangled her and used a broken bottle to cut her vagina.  In a statement to police, the murderer Óscar Condori Vargas said, “The señorita turned up dead, I got up and I don’t know, I don’t know anything, I didn’t see anything; I don’t know in what moment they did [killed] her; I had fallen asleep, I was drunk.”

My first reaction after reading Condori’s statement was to ask, “Well, which was it??” But no–it’s better to not talk about excuses.  Because the fact is, there is no excuse for murder. That is why we call a person’s “reason” for committing murder a motive, not an excuse that absolves the murderer of responsibility for the crime. And yet, this article traffics in excuses, rather than motives, offering them up like sacrifices.  In the Condori case, the reporter informs us that the excuse was the sex worker’s refusal to seal the deal.  (Violence against sex workers is a pervasive and troubling phenomenon that I cannot cover in detail in this post, but see here for recent treatment of this problem in the U.S.)

In its closing paragraphs, the La Razón article reviews other crimes that were recently perpetrated in El Alto motels, offering an excuse for each.  Last Christmas Eve, one man decapitated his girlfriend with a kitchen knife before attempting to escape, carrying her head with him inside a cardboard box.  “The motives of the crime were passionate, according to the [local police],” assures the reporter.  “In two other cases [of murder in El Alto motel rooms],” the article continues, “the victim unleashed her lover’s jealousy by calling him by the wrong name.”  Are these “motives”?  Explanations that we can add to a case file before locking the bastards away for 25-years-to-life?  No–these are excuses. In this article, La Razón is, perhaps unwittingly, justifying the crime of passion defense and ultimately excusing the absence of just prison sentences for male perpetrators of feminicide in Bolivia.  So please–no more “passionate” excuses.  Just give us cold hard motive, evidence, trial, and finally–justice.