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BOLIVIA
Women gear up to break their silence
Martin Garat
12/21/2006
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Activists push for women’s issues to be included in new constitution.

"Out of all oppressed people, indigenous women have been the most oppressed," says Teresa Canaviri, Bolivia’s former women’s vice minister.

Many Bolivian women are hoping that the country’s new constitution will put an end to their oppression and improve their living conditions. The Constituent Assembly is currently at a standstill over the approval requirements for the document.

A pillar of the majority Movement to Socialism Party (MAS) of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is the integration of all indigenous peoples into society. But the party has shown little, if any, interest in the reality facing women. The so-called Women’s Vice Ministry, truly a department of the Ministry of Sustainable Development (Bolivia has never had a women’s ministry) was dissolved when Morales organized his Cabinet.

Katia Uriona of the nongovernmental Women’s Coordinating Group organization runs a project called Women and the Constituent Assembly, which has organized more than 400 women’s workshops around Bolivia, where participants debate and form concrete proposals to present to the assembly.

Uriona explained that in Bolivia’s cities, the main problems are due to poverty and migration from rural parts of the country, a phenomenon that has created widespread urban marginalization, not only in Bolivia, but in other Andean capitals, such as Lima, Peru.

"The young campesinas and indigenous women come to the cities with little education and it’s difficult for them to find employment. They have no other alternative but to enter the informal economy with the consequences of insecurity and precariousness. They suffer discrimination for their ethnicity, for being poor and for being women," Uriona said. She estimates that 80 percent of women in Bolivia work in the informal sector without social security or any kind of pension.

Part of the problem is that Bolivian society is extremely conservative and machista, conditions conducive to widespread violence against women.

"There is a culture of patriarchal domination that is deeply-rooted in our country," she said. "The violence is more visible in the cities because it is easy to report it. But there is also violence in rural areas."

Domestic violence in indigenous communities is a touchy subject in Bolivia. But Canaviri, an Aymara, says that the problem must be addressed.

"It must be recognized that family violence is present also in indigenous communities. Before there was more harmonious cohabitation, but familial disintegration and temporary migration of the men to the cities, where they look for work, contributes to the present problem," she said.

Women from rural Bolivia not only suffer from domestic violence. Migration has also brought sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, to the countryside.

At the same time, abortion, once a taboo, has also become more common for rural women, for whom it was once the norm to have many children. But now, children are seen as an economic strain, and women travel increasingly to the big cities to have illegal abortions, often performed in precarious conditions, putting their lives in danger.

"But communities refuse to discuss these problems. They prefer to ignore the reality that young people are contracting [sexually transmitted diseases] and women are dying because of illegal abortions," Canaviri said.

But citizen participation in social and other organizations for women is very limited compared to their more mobile male counterparts.

In addition to traveling to the cities to look for work, men leave their rural communities to perform their military service. They participate in nationwide and department-wide indigenous organization meetings, unlike women, Canaviri says.

"As men leave their communities more, mothers prioritize the education of boys, while girls are consigned to domestic work in the community. Women rarely leave their communities and receive little information on what is going on in the country," she added.

Canaviri now directs the National Network of Information and Communication Workers, or RED-ADA, and, like Uriona, she conducts workshops to help rural women create proposals for the assembly.

But it is a challenge, since many campesina women have only scant knowledge of politics. The workshops often end up teaching these women basic civics topics, such as the definition of a law, a constitution and the role of government.

Despite the numerous hurdles, rural women have been able to discuss important issues in these workshops such as property rights and land control, Canaviri says.

"It’s important that women are co-owners of the land and that they are given more decision-making powers. Currently, men can sell their land without their wives’ consent. If a man dies, and his wife is from another community, she is obligated to return to her own community and give up the land," she explains.

The Women’s Coordinating Group proposes that future public policies include a form of affirmative action for marginalized groups, especially women, to be integrated in society.

The organization also proposes policies to tackle the economic reality facing women workers in the informal economy, Uriona says.

"We want women’s contribution to the economy through informal and domestic work to be measured and recognized. The value of these jobs must lead to the right to retirement, social security and healthcare," she said.

The current Bolivian Constitution "sustains and promotes" the Catholic religion, Uriona says, giving the institution significant influence in public policies.

"The influence of the Catholic Church over the state restricts sexual and reproductive rights, mainly of women, who often don’t even know what their rights are, and their ignorance of contraceptive methods impedes them from making decisions as to how many children they want to have. We propose that the Bolivian state be a secular one."


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