Bolivia’s new Constitution which came into effect a year ago, recognizes upfront that women’s rights are human rights, and it has led to real progress in both legislation and policies granting women equal rights. The changes relating to gender equality include the establishment of an electoral body that guarantees equal participation for men and women, changes in terminology recognizing the female identity and gender differences, the recognition and value of household work, the right of women to access, own and sell land, and the recognition that women have rights over their sexual and reproductive health.
The area of women’s political participation and empowerment is one of the clearest examples of the progress in establishing women’s rights in the last few years. The electoral law known as the Quotas Act provides for the equal participation of women in politics with quotas for 30% of female candidates. The new Constitution also mandates quotas for 50% of women standing as candidates for local government, Congress, Senate and the new pluri-national Legislative Assembly. In addition, the Political Parties Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, age or ethnic origin, and more recently the Citizen’s Associations and Indigenous Peoples Act establishes 50% of female representation.
CEDAW and the Optional Protocol (ratified by Bolivia in 1990 and 2000) have been vital to advancing Bolivian women’s rights, providing a tool for civil society and women’s organisations to demand rights and better conditions for women around the country. The CEDAW Committee welcomed the new legislation promoting equal political participation and representation, but still expressed its regrets about the insufficient representation of women in senior posts in many areas of professional and public life, particularly in the judiciary. At the regional level, the Inter American Convention on the prevention, punishment and eradication of violence against women of Belem do Para has also played a part in advancing the women’s rights agenda. Some of the progress in the ‘Heart of South America’ can be seen through advances in education and health for women and girls, the implementation of tools to tackle domestic violence and increased women’s political participation at the national and local levels.
However, there is still a notorious gap between progressive legislation and policy - and what happens in practice. One of the gravest challenges that women are now facing as a result of their increased participation is political gender based violence against candidates and elected women politicians. Women are often subjected to threats, attacks, intimidation physical and psychological violence and harassment by men just because they dare to speak up publicly in a patriarchal society. In Bolivia now, harassment and violence against women involved in politics is the main barrier against women’s political participation. Nonetheless this situation is still ignored and not acknowledged by the Government. It is also absent from public debate. Despite measures to promote women’s political participation, different Bolivian governments have been incapable of guaranteeing the safety of women who occupy positions of responsibility or to protect them from threats and harassment. A draft Law against Political Harassment of Women was drawn up ten years ago, it is exemplary legislation which will serve as a model for other parts of the world, but it has yet to be passed.
The National Association of Council Women of Bolivia (ACOBOL) is working hard to ensure that political violence is recognized as a crime and punished accordingly and that this type of violence is properly prevented and eradicated. ACOBOL carried out a research study about political violence against women councillors and majors in Bolivia. 117 witness statements were collected, covering different cases reported to ACOBOL between 2000 and 2005. The main acts of violence against women included: pressure to resign as councillors and leave politics, verbal and psychological violence, physical violence and sexual violence. Only 40% of the cases received and documented by ACOBOL had been reported to public authorities. The research demonstrated the extent and damaging effects of gender based political violence against elected women politicians, and the failure of the authorities to acknowledge to this situation. Through reviewing existing legislation and jurisprudence ACOBOL also demonstrated the existence of a legal loophole in this area. Currently there is no specific definition of women’s political rights, no legal definition of harassment and gender based violence and no mechanism through which to report cases of harassment and gender based political violence. The CEDAW Committee has expressed its concerns about the violence against women in government posts, and has demanded that the Bolivian Government adopts the draft legislation on political violence and that offenders are properly judged and prosecuted
One World Action invited representatives from ACOBOL to participate in an international conference on CEDAW that took place in London last November and to lobby the European Parliament. They pointed out that the lack of recognition of gender based political violence as a crime is a major gap in CEDAW and called for urgent action be taken to amend the Convention. This is now a challenge globally because a common definition has yet to be decided.
In spite of the increased violence against women in Bolivia, the progress in women’s representation continues. In a ground breaking historical event, 47% of those elected to the Senate last December were women, 25% in the Chamber of Deputies and 30% in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. And earlier this month Dr Ana Maria Encina, ACOBOL’s President, became the mayor of Santa Cruz, the second largest city in Bolivia, and the largest in terms of economic power. This success reflects the joint work of feminist organizations, women’s organizations, indigenous women’s associations, social movements, local authorities and female leaders working towards increased women’s political participation and empowerment and ultimately aiming to achieve parity in Bolivia. This triumph is evidence of the new reality in Bolivia - a country that is now finally starting to show a women’s face.
One World Action and ACOBOL will host a session on gender based political violence at the forthcoming UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.