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BOLIVIA: Women Councillors Fight Harassment

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Sep 13 2007 (IPS) - Women town councillors in Bolivia are pressing for a law to protect them from discrimination and political harassment on the part of their male colleagues, whom they accuse of intimidation and even death threats, especially in rural areas.

“They locked me in a room, hit me and ordered me at gunpoint to sign a letter of resignation,” says one of 168 testimonies collected between 2000 and 2007 by the Bolivian Association of Women Councillors (ACOBOL), which works for the right of women to hold public office.

There are 327 town councils in Bolivia. The country’s electoral laws require 30 percent of each political party’s candidates to be women, and for citizen groups the proportion required is 50 percent.

But this affirmative action does not extend to executive positions. Only 14 percent of mayors are women, ACOBOL manager María Eugenia Rojas told IPS.

A draft law against harassment and gender violence in politics “makes Bolivia a leader among Latin American countries,” where complaints are frequent but no penalties are provided by law, said Rojas.

The draft law is presently being debated in the Chamber of Deputies, and will go from there to the Senate. Meanwhile, sociologist and researcher Fidel Rojas continues to collect testimonies from women councillors forced to leave their elected positions because they were perceived as a threat to the mayors’ plans.

Women cannot achieve a balance of power “because men don’t like to have their actions checked up on,” said Fidel Rojas.

According to another testimony compiled by ACOBOL, in the town of Irupana, councillor Martina Barra reported that the president of the council, Javier Salgueiro, discriminated against her because she is Afro-Bolivian.

The statements tell of the widespread practice of making women candidates sign a blank sheet of paper. If they are elected, the other councillors write a resignation letter on the page and send it to the electoral authorities.

Women who resist are subjected to direct pressure, as are their families, and are even threatened with a beating by residents of rural municipalities controlled by hostile councillors, said the ACOBOL manager.

One of the cases tells the story of Mayor Juana Quispe, of the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), who was elected in 2004 in the municipality of Chimoré, in the tropical zone of the department (province) of Cochabamba, with 59 percent of the vote.

Under the psychological pressure of threats to her life and of burning down her home, Quispe handed in her resignation as mayor. Although the provincial electoral court refused to accept her resignation, Quispe ultimately gave in to harassment from her political colleagues and asked for an indefinite leave of absence.

Substitute councillor Valerio Felipe took office as mayor with the backing of four MAS legislators in this coca-growing area, where President Evo Morales first built up his leadership.

In the 2004 municipal elections, 337 women were elected as councillors, but only four percent of these succeeded in becoming mayors, María Eugenia Rojas said. To become a mayor, one must first be a councillor.

Male dominance turns men into “absolute masters” in rural indigenous areas and confines women to domestic chores, or at most to leading groups of homemakers or informal trade organisations, Fidel Rojas told IPS.

The draft law is an attempt to fill a legal vacuum by identifying harassment and violent behaviour as punishable offences and crimes. It also extends protection to all women elected to positions in municipal, provincial or national governments.

According to the draft law tabled for discussion, political gender harassment is defined as “an act or series of acts committed by an individual or group themselves, or through third parties, against a woman or her family, with the intent of preventing and/or inducing an action or omission in the fulfilment of her functions, rights or duties, by exerting pressure through persecution, vexation or threats of any nature.”

Political gender violence is described as “aggressive actions and/or behaviour by an individual or group themselves, or through third parties, that cause physical, psychological or sexual harm to a woman exercising political representation, and/or her family, with the intent of preventing and restricting her exercise of her position or inducing her to make decisions against her will, her principles and the law.”

The penalties proposed include criminal prosecution, application of the regulations of the state institution where the offence has been committed, and application of the laws regulating political parties, civil organisations and indigenous peoples.

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