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BOLIVIA: More Women in Parliament, With Their Own Agenda

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jan 20 2010 (IPS) - An unprecedented 28 percent of seats in Bolivia’s new parliament will soon be occupied by women. Female lawmakers have already launched a battle for women to serve in half the posts in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

A senator and a leader from Coordinadora de la Mujer shake hands on the parliamentary pact. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

A senator and a leader from Coordinadora de la Mujer shake hands on the parliamentary pact. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

One indication of women’s increased influence was the election Tuesday of Ana María Romero to preside the Senate, the first woman in this country’s parliamentary history to do so. Re-elected President Evo Morales said it was a step towards gender parity in the powers of government.

The bicameral Plurinational Assembly is the new legislative branch under the constitution that came into force 11 months ago, and replaces the Congress that met for 184 years. The constitution, re-written by a constituent assembly 33 percent of whose members were women, has re-founded the Bolivian state.

Romero, a member of the governing leftwing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), was elected by 35 out of the 36 senators, 10 of whom belong to opposition parties, which shows the consensus of support for this veteran journalist who was formerly Peru’s first Ombudsperson (1998-2003), another fact mentioned by Morales.

Lidia Gueiler is the only other woman to have attained leadership in Congress. In 1979 she presided over the lower house, and from 1979 to 1980 she was Bolivia’s interim president.

Parliament will have its opening session Friday, when 50-year-old indigenous trade union leader Morales, who has governed since January 2006, will be sworn in for a second term as president.

Even before their official installation, the 46 new women lawmakers have been under pressure from grassroots women activists to adopt an agenda in favour of gender parity, including the goal of women holding half the positions in the branches of government, and a series of bills to improve women’s lot.

Bolivian women have formed more than 200 organisations that belong to the non-governmental Coordinadora de la Mujer, and are proposing a package of draft laws drawn up by trade unions, campesino (small farmer) and feminist organisations, which the 33 women lawmakers belonging to MAS have already promised to support in parliament.

The other 13 women in parliament were elected by three opposition parties. There are 166 parliamentary seats, of which 115 were won by MAS. The senate has 36 members and the lower house 130, of whom half (65) are elected by direct personal vote, and the remainder from party lists of candidates.

The total number of women in the new parliament will be twice that in the last legislature of the old Congress, which had only 22 women members, equivalent to 14 percent of its 157 seats.

Bolivia has a population of 10.4 million, half of whom identify themselves as indigenous people, and 33.5 percent live in rural areas.

Fighting for their Rightful Place

The Movement of Women Present in the History of the Struggle for Inclusion, Diversity and Interculturalism has worked strenuously since 2006 to promote the inclusion of women in the reconstructed state, and its first achievement was the high proportion of women in the constituent assembly that re-wrote the constitution.

It also managed to secure a measure of equity in the electoral laws applied for the first time in the December elections, which stipulate the alternation of male and female candidates on party electoral lists. However, it failed to achieve nomination and election of women candidates in the hoped-for proportion of 50 percent in the lower house, because of lack of support from the political parties.

The giant leap in women’s share of parliamentary seats is the result of the pressure and action of some 200 organisations, Mónica Novillo, in charge of advocacy and lobbying for the Coordinadora de la Mujer, said at a Dec. 14 meeting of women’s organisations and new women lawmakers.

But parliamentary action for expanded rights for women and greater equity in public office will still face opposition from lawmakers cast in a patriarchal mould, the substitute lawmaker for the department (province) of La Paz, Elizabeth Salguero, told IPS.

In the previous legislature, Salguero chaired the Commission on Human Rights and she advocated a law against political violence on gender grounds, to protect women elected to municipal and national office. But the bill was not passed.

Meanwhile, representatives of the main women’s trade union organisation, the “Bartolina Sisa” Trade Union Federation of Indigenous Campesina Women of Bolivia, are demanding gender equity in the Morales government to be appointed in early February.

In his first government, only four out of 20 ministerial posts went to women, although the president has promised to increase their share in his new cabinet.

This will be the first test of the executive branch’s response to the demands of organised women’s groups for a greater share of power and progress towards half the decision-making posts in the state apparatus, the justice system, municipalities and provinces.

“But basically, without education there can be no rights, no creation or defence of human rights,” Cristina Barreto, a leader of the “Bartolina Sisa” Federation in La Paz, told IPS emphatically.

“We must provide a plurinational education, in several languages,” she urged women lawmakers, exhorting them to work night and day “until we get rid of consumerist, theoretical education,” in line with Morales’ stated vision for change.

“In rural areas, girls attend school up to third grade, but today all children must have the opportunity to complete their secondary education,” otherwise economic and industrial development will be impossible, she said.

Barreto gave several examples of discrimination against women. She complained that teachers expel pregnant teenage girls from school, “but not the boys who get them pregnant.”

“Some employers make women workers sign a pledge that they will not get pregnant during the period of their contract,” but this must change. The state should give tax breaks to companies who employ the most women and respect their rights, Amalia Coaquira told IPS.

Coaquira is a leader in the Bolivian National Federation of Self-Employed Women Workers, an organisation created in response to the impact of the free-market policies implemented in Bolivia between 1985 and 2005, which forced thousands of women into the informal sector, mainly working as street vendors for the sake of their own and their families’ survival.

New labour laws stipulating equal wages for men and women, providing protection against workplace and sexual harassment, including self-employed women workers in the social security system, and recognising the economic value of work in the home, are Coquira’s recommendations to the women lawmakers.

“Homemakers never get to retire on a pension, they are just assumed to go on and on,” she complained.

Land and women’s aspiration to property titles in their own right are the main aims of the National Indigenous Women’s Federation, whose representative Blanca Cartagena placed the issue firmly on the parliamentary list of pending tasks.

According to the government, 10,299 land titles were granted to women between 2006 and 2009, representing a total of 164,401 hectares. But Cartagena underscored the urgent need to give preference to women heads of family, especially those who are without family support or are extremely poor.

“I want to take direct action; I can do a lot and contribute to several development approaches,” the lawmaker for Beni province, Ingrid Zabala, confidently told IPS.

An agronomist (“ingeniera agrónoma”) who has specialised in social and agricultural research, Zabala has scored a political coup in an area that is one of the most conservative and least receptive to ideas of gender equity. Not only is she a woman, she also belongs to MAS, which is unpopular in Beni and other eastern Bolivian provinces.

Zabala says she will work in parliament against violence and discrimination, and for equal rights and respect for the environment. She has already proved her tenacity in battles against corruption as a professor at the José Ballivián Autonomous University in Beni.

She says she became aware of the different faces of discrimination from childhood, when her family would not allow her to make friends with campesina girls wearing traditional indigenous skirts, or when she had to change the title page of her thesis where she had used the word “ingeniera” (a female engineer), instead of “ingeniero” (a male engineer) to specify the degree she was a candidate for.

Bolivia’s new women lawmakers have a difficult road ahead as they continue to seek ways of putting into practice the changes that, so far, have only been written into the constitution.

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