Political femicide

14 Aug, 2012 | Rosanna Butters

History & Politics

Targets of gender-based violence gain legal protection

On 13 March 2012, the body of councillor Juana Quispe was found near the Orkojahuira River in La Paz, seeming to have been strangled by a belt. Still unresolved, Quispe’s murder has proven to be a wake-up call for Bolivia to address serious obstacles facing its female politicians.

Quispe was the town councillor of Ancoraimes, a small municipality on the Lake Titicaca side of the La Paz department. Before her murder, Quispe had been trying to help female Bolivian politicians fi le complaints dealing with sexual, physical and psychological harassment, and she was one of the main proponents of a law to protect female politicians from violence and harassment. At the time of her death, Quispe had claimed to be a victim of this herself and was in the process of fi ling legal complaints against Felix Huanca and Pastor Cutili – the mayor and council head of Ancoraimes, respectively – for preventing her from carrying out her duties as councillor. But the political harassment experienced by Quispe was by no means an isolated case: most recently, on 19 June 2012, another concejala, Daguimar Rivera Ortiz, was found shot in Guyaramerin, Beni department; like Quispe, Rivera had been investigating allegedly corrupt political practices in her municipality.

According to data from the Association of Female Councillors of Bolivia (ACOBOL), an organisation which promotes women’s participation in politics, in the past eight years there have been over 4,000 complaints of harassment from female Bolivians involved in politics. So why is political harassment such a problem? Hostility towards women in the workplace could derive from the expectation in Andean culture that women should be productive (helping with agriculture), reproductive (producing children) and community-minded (helping in local councils), rather than pursuing careers. While the Andean principle of chachawarmi (mutually beneficial roles of men and women) suggests that these gender roles aren’t oppressive to women, Julieta Ojeda of Mujeres Creandos, a women’s centre in La Paz, argues that in practice it is not so, because ‘in Aymara communities where they supposedly apply chachawarmi, there isn’t a correlation between this idea and the reality,’ and that Andean machismo is still present ‘in every area’. Her view is supported by ACOBOL’s findings, which show that reported cases of political harassment are most common in cities with large Aymara and Quechua populations: 51% of female councillors in Chuquisaca department have reported harassment, and 48% in La Paz department.

Over the last century, changing legislation has reflected changing attitudes towards women. A law created in the nineteenth century stipulated that a woman had to be hospitalised or in convalescence for 30 days before she could file a legal complaint against her husband. A century later, after of the growth of the women’s rights movement, Law No. 1674 was passed to address domestic violence by installing police patrols in areas where it was particularly common and raising awareness of the problem through media. Most recently, in 2009, the new Bolivian constitution guarantees – at least on paper – that women have a right to be free of ‘physical, sexual or psychological violence’, and that all citizens have the right to participate in political power ‘under fair and equal conditions for men and women’.

Yet although in the past century Bolivian attitudes towards women’s rights have improved, the process has been slow and is by no means complete. While 35% of ministers are currently female (with the government publicly acknowledging a goal of 50%), Paola Gutierrez, a legal services social worker at Mujeres Creando, argues that these statistics only ensure ‘a biological presence and not necessarily real or active participation from women’. Quispe, for example, had an official government position, but was prevented from carrying out her duties properly. Additionally, Bolivian women’s late start in the workplace has left them at a disadvantage: for instance, only 60% of contemporary female politicians have a high school education, which means that they are often under- qualified for certain jobs.

According to Janaina Coutinho of the Coordinadora de la Mujer (a women’s rights NGO), the murder of Quispe was key to improving women’s rights, as it not only exposed the reality of political violence that Bolivian women face but also ‘showed the urgency of demands for better protection for women at an international level’. On 21 May 2012, two months after Quispe’s death, the Bolivian Senate and Chamber of Deputies unanimously passed the ‘Law Against the Political Harassment of Women’ after 12 years of it being stuck in the legislature. This new law carries a two-to-five-year sentence for political harassment and a three-to- eight-year sentence for any kind of physical, sexual or psychological aggression against female politicans.

So now that both this law and the 2009 constitution have ensured that women are protected on paper, is this the reality? While the deaths of Quispe and Rivera have raised awareness of the issue, the fact that two outspoken female politicians were murdered in three months could intimidate others into keeping quiet and suffering in silence. Furthermore, these cases suggest that although Bolivian legislation purports to support gender equality, culturally the country has some way to go to meet that goal. ACOBOL’s research shows that while half of all reports of political harassment are made in La Paz, ‘you have to take into account the cases [that are] not reported, not registered and not supported’, mainly in rural areas where women’s rights organisations have less outreach and where cases of sexual harassment are less likely to be reported. Thus organisations like ACOBOL, the Coordinadora de la Mujer and Mujeres Creandos need to work with the Bolivian courts to ensure that the law is properly implemented both in La Paz and other departments, and continue both to raise awareness of the issue and provide support for victims of political violence.

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