Bolivia's indigenous women have gained a much better position in society during Evo Morale's time in power, writes Emil Wenlöf. Photo: Soman (CC BY-SA) and private

Guest chronicle

Progress on the rights of indigenous women may be lost in Bolivia

The situation of women in Bolivia has improved markedly over the last thirteen years. Discriminatory laws have been changed and, for the first time in history, indigenous women have taken seats in parliament and in many other public posts. But since November, the country has had a controversial interim president who changes politics and makes racist statements against the country's indigenous peoples. The concern is great among many of the country's indigenous peoples and women.

I am at the headquarters of the indigenous and women's rights organization "Bartolina Sisa" in La Paz, Bolivia. The social leaders follow the news flow. The first police officers begin to rebel against President Evo Morales. It is three days before Evo Morales resigns from his presidency following pressure from the military. It is anxious and heavy glances that permeate the room. Through an interview with a leader from the Los Yungas district, we can call her Silvia, I hear about the situation in Los Yungas and other parts of Bolivia. Silvia talks about how in the last decade there have been major changes in the discrimination and persecution that indigenous women lived in.

"Thanks to our brother President Evo Morales, women have now gained a voice and society values ​​women more than before," she says.

She says that today they carry out projects and development together with the men and strive forward towards equality and change. In the past, it has been difficult due to the widespread macho culture.

"That is why we are fighting for the president, to protect our voice. We do not want discrimination and racism back, ”says Silvia.

As an intern at one of the Latin American groups' cooperation organizations, I had the opportunity to meet women from all over Bolivia, during a time of great change. A recurring theme in conversations and interviews was that many women were previously unaware of the laws that specifically protect women.

During a visit to the village of Pukharani, the course leader Macleoda tells how conditions in Bolivia were when she grew up. She portrayed an earlier society where indigenous culture and indigenous peoples were not respected in the cities, where languages ​​other than Spanish were despised, as were traditional indigenous costumes. Many women chose not to wear folk costumes in the cities to avoid derogatory words and in some cases violence. The authorities, who considered indigenous peoples to be primitive, did not give indigenous peoples full access to social services, which also resulted in the majority of the country's poor being indigenous. This caused many indigenous peoples to cut ties with their traditional roots to integrate into the cities.

Since Evo Morale's inauguration as president, Macleoda says, the government's social program has improved the socio-economic situation and indigenous peoples are more represented in society. Indigenous women can express their culture, are represented in several institutions and many have a higher standard of living. However, there is still a widespread macho culture that is penetrating Bolivian society and preventing many women from reaching their full potential. Bartolina Sisa organizes leadership training, information campaigns and practical knowledge to strengthen the country's indigenous women and fundamentally change the macho culture.

Some of the women in Bartolina Sisa who have just participated in an education. Photo: Emil Wenlöf

Following the October elections, a wave of violence against indigenous women and representatives of Evo Morale's Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party began. Indigenous women in the city of Cochabamba were attacked by counter-protesters during a peaceful demonstration, Bartolina Sisa's office was attacked around the country, MAS Mayor Particia Arce was forced to walk barefoot through the city of Vinto when color was thrown at her and her hair cut. These are just a few examples that occurred during the turbulent time.

It has now been more than five months since the election and Evo Morale's resignation. Vice President Jeanine Áñez and the country's conservative forces continue to claim electoral fraud. In recent months, former members of Morale's government have been arrested on corruption charges, incitement to violence and terrorism.

During this time, Bartolina Sisa and other social movements have organized themselves to show that there is still support for the ideology of Evo Morale's party MAS. The progress for women's rights that Bartolina Sisa has contributed to is now the driving force in continuing their struggle for a more inclusive and equal society.

Many of Bartolina Sisa's members are running as candidates in the new election, which should have taken place at the end of May, but which has now been postponed due to the corona pandemic. Bartolina Sisa sees the postponed election as an attempt by Añez to retain power as the MAS party leads the opinion polls with its 40 percent and will most likely get the most votes in the election. The question then is whether the opposition can gather strength and create a coalition strong enough to overthrow the MAS party. The divisions in the opposition are based, among other things, on the fact that Jeanine Añez and Luis Fernando Camacho previously said that they would not run in the presidential election. Both are doing it now anyway and Añez is the strongest opposition candidate after the last election's opposition leader Carlos Mesa.

This election is a crossroads for Bolivia's future. Will the opposition breathe new life into neoliberalism or will the indigenous peoples and the MAS continue their process of change to achieve prosperity and prosperity with Pachamama (Mother Earth) on their side? What is certain, however, is that Bartolina Sisa will continue to fight for every woman's rights to be fulfilled and for equality to be achieved.

This is a chronicle. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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