Archive for sexism

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.

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.

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.

8 de Marzo: Blog por el Día Internacional de la Mujer

Posted in Bolivia, International Women's Day with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), and women and their allies around the world are celebrating in a variety of ways.  On the blogosphere, Gender Across Borders, a feminist blog with an international focus, is hosting “Blog for International Women’s Day.” (Click here for a full list of participating blogs.)  This year’s theme for IWD is “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all,” and participants in Blog for IWD are being asked to write about what this phrase means to us.

To me, the phrase “equal rights, equal opportunity” immediately conjures up a number of important goals in gender equity that, in most countries, have yet to be met: gender parity in government and in other arenas of decision-making and power; equal pay for equal work, and dozens of others.  These goals are immensely important and, fortunately, many individuals and organizations around the world are working to realize them.  However, this is not what I want to write about.  After years of speaking with Bolivian women about their daily struggles with gender inequality, I’d like to address a different aspect of “equal rights,” one that likely underlies the majority of concrete inequalities in women’s experience: different ideas about and attitudes toward men and women.

If you were to come to Bolivia and ask any random woman on the street what the situation is like for women in the country, I would bet money that she would tell you that there is a lot of machismo in Bolivia.  Many men would probably concur.  And yet, I doubt you would find many individuals who would assert that there is a lot of sexismo in Bolivia.

To most Bolivians, it seems, machismo refers to those idiosyncratic, slightly annoying, but mostly harmless attitudes displayed by men who feel they are superior to women.  Although to your average western feminist, and probably to a lot of western men, the above definition sounds a lot like the stuff that sexism is made of, in Bolivia, these attitudes have become so normal and so normalized, that calling Bolivian men machista is something that even many men are willing to do.

Sexism, on the other hand, has another, slightly scarier, ring, and few are willing to pronounce the word.  Sexism, unlike machismo, is a word that carries political weight, that makes local women feel they are “complaining” about something, and that implies a call to action.  Sexism—a term used in Bolivia to refer to those more concrete gender inequities I mentioned at the top of the post, when it is used at all—is not really normalized, as machismo is, but neither is it recognized by society at large.

It’s time to wake up: machismo is sexismoUnequal ideas about appropriate male and female behavior, about who men and women are—psychologically or biologically, and about what men and women deserve, are what justify, legitimize, and normalize unequal rights and unequal opportunities for men and women. So, this is what “equal rights, equal opportunity: progress for all” means to me—it means recognizing that ideas about sexual difference are constructed, not natural, and it means exposing the lies that these ideas represent.

Below are a number of visions of what “equal rights, equal opportunity” might look like in Bolivia.  These visions are based upon the unequal ideas about and attitudes toward women and men that I have witnessed in La Paz and El Alto since 1999.

She can have multiple sexual partners, as he can, and not be considered a slut while he is considered a stud.  They can both just be considered sexually active human beings.

He can wash dishes, clean clothes, and help take care of his children without being considered a “sissy” by his male friends.

She can buy condoms and be prepared for sex, and not be considered “easy.”

She can run for political office without being considered laughable, nor facing violence or threats.

He and his female partner can chose to not have children without his virility being questioned.

She can have male friends and acquaintances without being accused of sexual infidelity by her male partner.

She can choose abortion without being considered a murderer, a bad mother, or a “cold woman.”

She can have sex with women, without being sexually exoticized nor labeled as politically extreme.

She can be considered just as capable as a man when driving or working in construction.

She can go out at night and drink with friends, and not be considered guilty or “asking for it” if she is raped.

She can go out at night, or in the morning, or at any time of day–and NOT be raped.

Thank you to the Bolivian women who have shared their experiences with me, and to all of the women around the world who make me wake up every day still believing that change is possible. ( The above photograph was provided by a guest photographer.)