Friday, November 15, 2013

Women in Bolivia

While walking through the maze of bustling streets in La Paz, you are likely to meet women from all walks of life; from traditionally dressed ´Cholitas´ in bowler hats and skirts, to young students, in skinny jeans and headphones.   Regardless of their culture and role in society, women continue to be impacted by the gender disparities that exist across Bolivia.  According to statistics for gender development by country, Bolivia is ranked 93rd out of 141 (Nationmaster, 2013). 

Until fairly recently, feminism and the development of women’s rights in Bolivia had been a long and hard process.  Progress is partly due to the emergence of Evo Morales as President, and his campaign to create greater support for and recognition of Bolivia’s indigenous groups.  On the 25th January 2009, Bolivians approved a new constitution by a majority vote of 61.43% (Rousseau, 2011).  In Bolivia the reform process involved diverse social movements, among which was the governing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). This was a major turning point in Bolivian history.  It was a transformative process from the point of view of the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity.  Bolivian women and indigenous peoples organised to influence the content of the new constitution. 

Morales supported reforms that provided opportunities for indigenous peoples to hold positions in office.  Historically, opportunities for women in politics had been limited due to poor education and the realities of living in a patriarchal society .  However, during the election of 2009, the number of women elected to parliamentary positions rose from 14% to 28% (Madre, 2012).  As of 2010, half of Morales’ political cabinet consists of women.  It was Bolivian indigenous women’s strong presence and activism that enabled them to strengthen their voice throughout the constituent assembly process. 

As the majority of Bolivia is made up of indigenous populations this further heightens the vulnerability of women.  As a social group they experience racial, ethnic, class and gender domination.  Indigenous rural women are further subjected to patriarchy than urban indigenous women because of traditions.  Therefore, the feminist movement had to include indigenous perspectives because of the central role of the indigenous movement in the Bolivian political process.   

The issues of inequality against Bolivian women are rooted in the political, economic and social spheres. In particular, the traditional misogynist culture whereby women are assigned a subordinate and dependent role, mainly that of reproduction and care of the family.  Despite this, the role of women is slowly evolving, as they step out of their traditional roles as mothers, wives and heads of households, emerging as business people and community leaders.  Through this many Bolivian women appear very resilient as they deal with the daily tasks of childcare, housework and work whilst maintaining traditional values through the many layers of ‘pollera’ skirt they wear. 

According to the Human Development Report Office of the United Nations Development Programme (2003), in Bolivia “men receive more and better education than women, receive increased and better health assistance than women, and have the possibility to generate greater income while working less…if we consider that women as opposed to men, also have the almost exclusive responsibility for domestic work.”
A report carried out by UNICEF (2012) highlighted the key issue as being that women in Bolivia do not live in conditions of equity with regard to men.  Illiteracy is greater, they have low income generating capacity, and the maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world.  Yet despite this, important progress has been made with regard to women’s participation in economic and political decision-making. 

With regard to women’s participation in matters of economy and politics, between 1976 and 1992 women’s participation in the economy increased from 22.5% to 40 % (UNICEF, 2012).  From UN data statistics (2013) the 2011 labour force participation in Bolivia for the female adult population was 64.1% compared to the male 80.9%.  While in 2012, seats held by women in national parliament sat at 25.4 % (UN Data, 2013). 

In urban areas, many women have incorporated themselves into the informal economy. The low-paid position of street vendor is a common form of self-employment for many indigenous women.  This is due to discrimination and the fact that their levels of education are lower than those of men.  Women in rural areas are more likely to experience discrimination, being both women and indigenous.  So whilst women’s participation in the economy has reached high levels, women have a low capacity to generate income (UNICEF, 2012). 

While the participation of women in economic and political decision-making areas remains low, the Human Development Report on Gender (2003) shows that from the beginning of the 90’s up to present, feminine participation in economic decision-making in private and public sectors has increased by 70%.  From 1992 their participation in national and local political representation has increased by 16%.  It can therefore be asserted that the progress of women in society has, in part, occurred due to legal reform and public policies that have contributed to improve equity between men and women. 

The National Statistics Institute (2001) shows illiteracy is greater amongst women, at 19.35% compared to men at 6.94%.  Furthermore, rural women’s illiteracy rate remains higher, at 37.91% whilst men are at 14.42%.  In relation to the maternal mortality rate, results gathered from the ENDSA 98 survey show the rate corresponds to 390 per 100,000 live born.  In rural areas the rate is, as expected, much higher with 887 per 100,000 live born in certain areas.  As UNICEF (2012) point out, risks to women’s health are often related to reproduction and childcare.  The principal causes of maternal mortality are obstetrical complications such as hemorrhages, infections, complications related to childbirth and abortion.  A mother’s health can also have a direct effect on her children.  For example, deficient nutrition of a mother-to-be during and after pregnancy is the cause of a percentage of neonatal deaths.  On top of this if the mother dies the probability of survival for the child is reduced by half. 

For women, physical abuse and rape are the highest experienced crimes against women in Bolivia.  Until 1995 domestic abuse was legal.  Half of Bolivian women have experienced sexual, physical or psychological abuse by a partner, while 9 out of 10 women are believed to have experienced general violence towards them (Walter, 2008).  There is a serious lack of women’s support groups and domestic abuse shelters to assist with this issue.  A new comprehensive domestic violence law was passed in 2013 that outlaws many forms of abuse of women, including marital rape. 

Despite these drawbacks, a great deal of progress has been made in a rather short space of time.  If the growth of development for women’s equal rights continues on this path, the future looks to be promising for the women of Bolivia.  

Written by Robyn Warburton
Edited by Sarah Cassidy 

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