Archive for rape

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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9 de Julio: Visita a Womanist Musings

Posted in blogging, sexual violence with tags , , on July 9, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week at Womanist Musings, I’ve written a guest post on my obsession with the World Cup–and on the sexual violence that I have learned takes place every day in South Africa.  To combat rape, one doctor has invented a device that is inserted vaginally that may help “trap” rapists.  Join the debate at Womanist Musings!

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.

13 de Junio: Cuando un país también es pobre

Posted in Bolivia, poverty with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week I discovered a few articles that emerged in the Bolivian press over the last several months that reminded me of the stunning variety of personal consequences to national poverty.  So often in this blog, I have identified particular government policies or cultural attitudes that affect Bolivian women, without placing these phenomena within the larger national and regional context.  It is this context that I would like to discuss today.  A context in which we recognize that Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America (with the exception of Haiti).  And when an entire country is poor–not just its citizens–its infrastructure and institutions also suffer.  And suffering institutions, of course, means that many people’s basic needs are not being met.  This is what is happening in Bolivia.

Last January, La Paz’s daily La Prensa reported on striking health care workers at one crumbling local hospital that serves both the urban El Alto and surrounding rural populations.  Situated in the more middle-class, Ciudad Satélite neighborhood of El Alto, the Hospital Municipal Boliviano Holandés–often simply called the Holandés–was opened in 1999 to provide more health care options to alteños and to the rural population that often passes through the city.  According to one social worker I spoke with that works at the hospital, up to 80% of the clientele of the Holandés are rural migrants, many of whom speak exclusively the Aymara indigenous language.  (Most of the hospital staff also speaks Aymara.)

One of the reasons I was surprised to read this article is because, as part of my work in Bolivia, I have spent considerable time at the Holandés and the facility seems comparable to other hospitals in La Paz and El Alto.  Clearly, this is evidence not of the health of the Holandés, but of the deteriorated condition of most Bolivian health care centers.  As the La Prensa reporter notes, “In the pharmacy there are no medications, the [hospital] cots are rusted, they lack anesthesia for operations, there’s no food to give the hospitalized patients, the ambulances do not work, and when it rains, thanks to the broken roofs, there is almost as much water inside as out” (all translations mine).

Even more disturbing, one nurse at the Holandés commented that hospitalized patients–despite the existence of universal basic health insurance in Bolivia–must pay a daily fee for their care.  He notes, “‘The Holandés functions currently as a private clinic.  Whoever needs care has to buy their own medications.'”  Before reading this, I was under the erroneous impression that much had changed since the 1990s, when women seeking treatment for incomplete abortions would be left waiting sometimes for days in their hospital beds until they could afford to pay for the dilation and curettage or the manual vacuum aspirator procedure they required.  The deteriorated condition of the Holandés is taking its toll on both patients and staff.  Said one worker, “‘It’s been two months since they have paid our salaries, but this isn’t that important…The most serious [problem] is that…the infrastructure [of the hospital] is very deteriorated.”

Patient medical records stuffed into boxes are kept in this storage room in one local hospital.

Our second story of crumbling Bolivian institutions comes this week from Cochabamba, where one Defensoría de la Niñez lacks the necessary staff to investigate all of the cases it receives.  In Bolivia, the Defensorías are public institutions responsible for seeing cases of mistreatment of minors–including rape, physical and psychological violence, and abandonment.  These agencies are also instrumental in facilitating the adoptions of abandoned and orphaned children, since the Defensorías provide children with the personal documentation and the court order of release necessary to be adopted.  That is to say, when these institutions are not falling apart, they perform these functions.

In La Paz and El Alto, too, the Defensorías are facing difficulties.  As minors are becoming more familiar with their rights, more and more cases of mistreatment–particularly of rape of adolescent girls–are arriving at these institutions, and most lack the resources to deal with the cases effectively. Most of the safehouses where adolescent rape survivors could be placed are already over-burdened, and the foster system in Bolivia is so inefficient as to be almost useless.  Despite working long hours, most Defensoría staff feel unable to meet the needs of community members–and these community members, for their part, often opt not to report cases of abuse when they know they will face long lines and little follow-up.  I will never forget what one Defensoría worker told me when I called her to request an interview; she said: “Sure, come whenever you want–I’m here 24 hours a day.”

In any country affected by crushing poverty, women (and children) are generally hit the hardest.  Often dependent upon their male partners and extended families, and facing machista attitudes and sexist discrimination, women must struggle harder to achieve financial and social independence for themselves and their children.  However, women’s struggles do not occur in a vacuum.  The same phenomena that daily test women also test all Bolivians–patients and hospital workers, children and parents, government officials and social workers.  There are a few wealthy folks that escape, but many are in the same boat.  Because when it’s an entire country that’s poor, most discover that the effects of poverty trickle down to all.

22 de Mayo: Ni amante, ni amigo

Posted in Bolivia, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

In general, I make an effort to highlight new issues in the blog, and not write in detail about themes I have covered previously.  That is, until reality forces me to. Last Saturday night, a young Bolivian man named Víctor Avendaño killed his “friend” Betty Condori by hitting her over the head with a bottle.  Once she was dead, Avendaño carried Condori’s body around the city–first to pick up some plastic bags at a garbage heap, and then to leave some items of the woman’s clothing at his parents’ home, where he lived–before dousing the body with kerosene and setting it on fire on a La Paz city street.  During his confession to police, Avendaño said in his own defense, “‘My only crime was to love a woman that did not pay attention to me.'”  (As always, all translations are my own.)

But clearly, Avendaño is mistaken.  Even before he murdered this young woman and then burnt her body on a street corner, Avendaño had committed other crimes.  First, he recorded and downloaded Condori’s private cell phone conversations with a young man in another city. Sometime in the last few weeks, Avendaño reports that he begged Condori to at least be his friend—a proposal that the young woman allegedly accepted.  Then, last Saturday night, Avendaño bludgeoned his “friend” over the head with a bottle.  Adding insult and disrespect to death, the murderer then stole some of Condori’s clothing—the article does not tell us which garments he took, but we can imagine—and then desecrated her body by setting it on fire.

Although feminicides such as this one occur frequently in Bolivia, my first reaction is always, “how is this possible?”  And by this, I do not simply mean the murder.  I mean, how can it be that so many men in Bolivia believe that any of these actions against women—harassment, spying, murder—are acceptable?  How can so many men have it in them to commit these crimes, and to hold the ideas about women that they must have to in order to make these crimes possible?

Last Thursday night, after a few beers at a pub across town, my friend “Alicia” and I decided to enjoy the crisp night air of La Paz and walk the 20 minutes to our homes.  The constant, and often violently themed, catcalls that we received on our walk, plus this article on yet another murder of a young woman in La Paz, sparked much reflection.

As I have mentioned before, I do not believe that Bolivian men’s frequent alcohol abuse is a cause for high rates of sexual and physical violence in the country.  However, what alcohol does do, is lower inhibitions.  That’s why people all over the world go out to bars, grab a few drinks, and end up hooking up with someone at the next table—it’s a natural part of life that often facilitates lasting romance.  But when drunk men on a La Paz street comment on women’s bodies as if they are something to be consumed, and even reach out a hand to see what they can grab on a passer-by, that is not the alcohol.  When drunk men go home and beat their wives and children, that is not the alcohol. That is the man.

I do not mean to imply that every drunk man in La Paz that catcalls women on the street could end up committing rape or murder.  What I do mean to say is this: if he’s doing it drunk, he could do it sober.  If—drunk or sober—your partner, or any man you know, is taping your cell phone conversations, threatening you, or showing way too much interest in your relationships with other men, then this man is not your friend. He’s not your friend, and he does not deserve to be your lover.  And he might just try to kill you.

Si usted cree que podría estar en riesgo de violencia de su pareja o de cualquier otra persona, comuníquese con CIDEM al 249-0358 (La Paz), o al 281-0041 (El Alto).  If you believe that you might be at risk of violence by your partner or by any other person, call CIDEM in La Paz or El Alto at the above telephone numbers.

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.

10 de Abril: Pedacitos

Posted in Bolivia, sexuality, violence against women with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, some odds and ends from the Bolivian highlands that I hope will spark conversation and debate.

First, yet another Bolivian woman has been killed in Spain. The 34-year-old migrant, known only by the initials M.S.P., was discovered last week in a Marbella hotel room; she had been suffocated to death.  This week, Spanish police found the likely culprit–her one-time boyfriend, a 39-year-old Peruvian man.  As if to chide the dead woman, this article from Madrid’s El País newspaper notes that M.S.P. “had never reported any mistreatment [that she had received], nor solicited assistance from the Municipality of Málaga nor the Andaluz Institute of Women” (all translations mine).

“Cycle of violence” graphic at a local organization working to combat violence against women.

Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the murder of another Bolivian woman in Spain, I wrote a post on the problem of domestic violence against migrant women and the particular vulnerabilities these women face because of their status as (often illegal) migrants.  Even women living in their countries of birth hesitate to denounce acts of violence.  Sometimes this is due to their (and their children’s) financial dependence upon the perpetrators, or because police do not take the accusations seriously, or for a number of other reasons.  Add to these the social isolation that many migrants suffer and the fear of deportation, and migrant women are even less likely to report (or to be able to report) acts of violence.

Accusations of sexual violence are even more fraught, as women’s behavior and dress are often scrutinized by authorities as supposed “causes” of or “justifications” for male attacks.  In a recent interview, several Bolivian police officials blamed adolescent girls’ drinking for rising rape rates in La Paz’s Max Paredes neighborhood.  This logic ignores the problem of male perpetrators’ sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, drunk or sober.  Even in countries where activists have made significant gains in raising awareness about rape, such as the U.S., many women’s accusations go unheard.  For example, see this case of a Washington, D.C. woman who was refused a rape kit–valuable forensic evidence that could have put her attacker behind bars (thanks to Feministe for reporting on this story).

An educational comic instructing women on how to report acts of violence to authorities.

In lighter–but still somewhat disturbing–news, RadioFMBolivia.Net published an article this week instructing (implicitly only) men to “caress women’s breasts to satisfy your partner more.” Accompanied by a picture of a large-breasted white woman in a seductive pose, the article, written in a woman’s voice, begins as sex advice and ends as soft porn, as the author finally succumbs to memories of an ex-boyfriend’s expert fingers.

Don’t get me wrong–I am all for frank discussions of sexuality in print, on the radio, on T.V., in the classroom, and anywhere and everywhere else.  However, as I have mentioned before, sex is already surrounded by so many unrealistic and negative messages (ie., that most women can achieve orgasm by vaginal penetration alone; that touching yourself during sex means that your partner is inadequate, etc.), that not just any type of press coverage will do.

This article, for example, gives explicit advice to men on what to do and what not to do in playing with a woman’s breasts: “It is not just about putting your hands on the breasts and moving them quickly and clumsily…  Handling a woman’s breasts requires a certain art, it demands patience.”  But whose breasts are we talking about, here?  Any woman’s?  Every woman’s?  “Sex advice” like that provided by this article actually discourages the one thing required for “good” sex–open and honest communication.  Some women may want their partners to handle their breasts “quickly and clumsily.”  Others may prefer a more delicate touch.  Still others may get no sexual stimulation from having their breasts touched.  But this isn’t something that men (or women who sleep with women) can find out from reading this article.  If you want to know how to turn your partner on, you have to talk to her.

Articles like this one reinforce the idea that sex is something that you are either “good at” or you are not; that there are a set of objective skills that you can pick up and that will work just as well on one partner as on another, and that if you have to ask your partner what she wants, you are somehow inadequate.  I’m not saying this article is totally useless–the soft porn aspect may turn your crank.  But let’s keep porn, porn, and toss out the “one-size-fits-all” sex advice.

Finally, this week Bolivians voted in local (departmental and municipal) elections.  The Andean Information Network has done a superb job summing up the results, so I will not attempt to replicate that here.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.