Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Q&A: Bolivian Women a Force Behind Power, But Still Powerless

Franz Chávez interviews women's studies expert CARMEN DEERE

LA PAZ, Dec 10 2009 (IPS) - While poor, native women in Bolivia have gained access to power, they are still largely marginalised from any real decision-making, despite their instrumental role in the 2005 election of leftist President Evo Morales, the country’s first-ever indigenous president, and his re-election on Sunday.

Carmen Deere, US expert on gender issues in Latin America. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

Carmen Deere, US expert on gender issues in Latin America. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

That’s the conclusion of a study by Carmen Deere, director of the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, United States, who cited Leonilda Zurita – a coca grower and the main leader of the peasant women’s movement in Bolivia – as an example.

With the new constitution that came into effect in February of this year, Bolivian women conquered significant gains through the inclusion of 26 articles that promote greater recognition for them, protect their rights and guarantee gender equality. But this is only a first step in a long journey to secure an influential participation in government.

On a visit to La Paz, Deere – who has written some 20 books on the situation of women in Latin America and their empowerment and participation in production through access to land, written from a feminist perspective – spoke with IPS about the situation of gender equality in Bolivia and the world.

The members of the Bartolina Sisa National Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Women, known as the “Bartolinas,” and their leader Zurita supported Morales since his early days as a trade union leader, and today they back his government in frequent demonstrations and rallies.

But despite her influence in the governing Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party, today Zurita is merely a senator alternate and was not included on any of the lists of candidates in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. The new constitution establishes that half of the spots on the lists of candidates for elective positions must be reserved for women, but this requirement was only partially met.

Deere talked about what still needs to be done to achieve equal participation of men and women, of how peasant women are afraid to stand up for their right to land, and of gender inequality in government.

IPS: At a time of historical changes in Bolivia, how do you see women’s participation in politics? CARMEN DEERE: Groups such as the coca growers of the tropical region of Cochabamba were key in the formation of MAS and the grassroots support for Evo Morales.

I’ve followed Leonilda Zurita’s work throughout the years, and in a piece she wrote for a book I edited on “Rural Social Movements in Latin America”, (published jointly with Frederick S. Royce in June 2009), she says exactly that: women formed the foundations of the movement, but now even she feels marginalised by the government she helped build.

Women are still not given their place. In terms of leadership there are strong barriers to women, preventing them from playing a role in decision-making. If it’s difficult for women with so much experience and intelligence (as Zurita), it’s easy to see the obstacles faced by ordinary women from the communities in their attempts to participate and exercise their rights.

IPS: What’s the relationship between power and property, in areas like land ownership? CD: My theory is that land ownership is an element that facilitates women’s participation, because of the relationship that exists between ownership and power. We’ve seen that in class-based societies those who own the means of production also hold political power.

But the interesting thing is that this also occurs in gender relations and within communities and in the home. So, whenever anyone asks me if in my gender studies I’m forgetting about social classes, I always say ‘absolutely not.’

We live in class-based societies, and things are more complicated than that. Because we work from a political economy perspective, we take it as a given that we’re analysing class-based societies. But within those societies there are huge inequalities between men and women.

Which is why we try to distinguish what things are like at the home level, and how we can lay the foundations for equality.

IPS: What are the main barriers that stand in the way of Bolivian women’s demand for land? CD: The issue of land has been a concern of the Bartolinas since the early 1980s, but at first they didn’t tackle it directly. They were afraid, because there was always the matter of traditional uses and customs, which has been the most difficult barrier to the rural women’s movement in Bolivia.

Traditional uses and customs have been built up alongside colonialism and capitalism, and have been responsible for weaving women’s subordination. It was when discussions for the National Agrarian Reform Institute Act began in 1996 that rural women’s organisations started to question who the land was going to be owned by.

IPS: Where did women’s demand for land originate? CD: For the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, there was a preparatory round in Latin America, led by non-governmental organisations, and women in Bolivia engaged very actively in the discussions.

It turned out that the issue was most widely discussed in areas of heavy migration, where women (away from their husbands) were left in charge of their farms, of the land, and they faced problems derived from the fact that they were powerless in the community and did not hold the titles to their land.

That was a turning point; it was then that this demand began to take shape. And the interesting thing is that it grew from below. But in the end, Bolivia did not include the land issue in its submission to Beijing. Women at the grassroots level were more advanced than their leaders. It took a little longer for it to be picked up by legislation.

IPS: How long will it be before women can go from being a vehicle for bringing men to power to holding power themselves? CD: I ask myself that same question in the United States. When will we be able to have a woman in the presidency? Many countries in Latin America have had successful women leaders and it’s hard to predict what will happen.

IPS: Is this is a cultural process? CD: Yes, a worldwide process. Many of the women who have held positions of high power are very masculine. I’m thinking of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, for example, who’s very conservative, very determined about her principles.

Very few have been feminists, and when they reach a position of power, they act like men and ignore their gender. Others are relatives, widows or daughters of leaders, who come to power for reasons other than their own merits or efforts.

Now Chile’s (President) Michelle Bachelet is a leader who rose to power on her own merit and with a feminist vision, and has tried to be true to her own origins. She is nearing the end of her term with the highest levels of approval.

IPS: What can a woman in government contribute when finances are placed before human development? CD: Hard question. It’s easy to fall prey to gender biases, in the sense that since women’s role has always been in reproduction, as a leader she’s expected to take that approach in her administration.

I think it has a lot to do with political awareness, and whether or not that woman has a feminist political awareness. When I say feminist I mean that women’s political agenda is equality, and that equality will have to permeate everything for us to develop equally as human beings.

So, a feminist leader – whether a woman or a man – has a different set of priorities than a neoliberal president, and will put human development first.

IPS: Where is feminism aiming for now, and what’s your interpretation? CD: In my work on Latin America, feminism has been closely connected to my analysis of political economy, and I couldn’t address gender issues separately from class differences. But the core issue is the struggle for equality between men and women, and that has always been my “modus operandi,” the issue that defines what I do.

In some countries, feminism is hard to understand. People immediately think of negative things. But I think that it is a form of liberation, both for women and men, a way to achieve more just social roles.

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