In October last year, I was in Bolivia – and today I was back in Bolivia in my head, in an email exchange with our Gender and Social Equity Focal Person, Ximena Aramayo. Bolivia is an interesting country in terms of gender relations. In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, which examines the difference between life opportunities for men and women when separated from the overall level of development of their country, Bolivia does well. It ranks 27 out of 136 countries surveyed – largely due to almost equal attainment in education and health, as well as relatively good political representation. The new Bolivian constitution, developed through a consultative process in the first term of President Evo Morales’ government, provided an opportunity for many women and men from all sections of society to express their views. Approved in 2009, some 10% of all clauses in the constitution are concerned with gender relations. In this, Bolivia is well ahead of other Latin American nations. And yet…
Bolivia has a shockingly high incidence of violence against women and girls. The common saying, “He hits me because he loves me” is a telling indication of how violent relations between men and women are somehow “normalised” and considered culturally acceptable. According to some estimates, 70 – 80% of women have suffered some form of sexual violence in their lives. It was the murder of a journalist, Hanali Huaycho, by her policeman husband in February 2013 that was one catalyst for a new law providing women greater legal protection. Enacted in March the same year, it provides for far stiffer penalties against violent offenders.
Legal provision is one matter; implementation of the law is another. The government has established public units at municipal level, SLIMs (Servicio Legal Integral Municipal), to support women experiencing violence, but these are still awaiting full staffing and funding. Although Helvetas has no specific project working on this matter, we do implement a project on behalf of SDC that supports municipalities – or rather, associations of municipalities – in operating in a more effective, participatory and accountable manner. These associations request the project, CONCERTAR, for support on different matters under a competitive bidding process – with the best (most deserving) proposals being funded. In this way, some SLIMs have received funding – including one that I visited in the municipality of Arbieto. Here I met lawyer Carla Amurrio Clavi sitting at her desk in an old wooden municipal building, posters calling for a halt to violence against women adorning the walls whilst chicken ran around her feet.
Working with a psychologist and social workers, Carla is responsible for running the municipality’s SLIM. She spends much of her time on fund-raising, as her budget is far from adequate. Since the SLIM was established in 2009, demand for its services has steadily increased. In the Arbieto municipality of some 18,000 inhabitants, there are at least 80 cases of serious domestic violence a year. Most of these, she says, are caused by men getting drunk, and are especially common amongst people migrating to the area from elsewhere. The police unit in the office next door is on hand 24 hours a day to answer distress calls, but prevention is a better strategy. Thus part of the work of the SLIM is to raise awareness amongst families about the unacceptability of domestic violence, and the provisions of the new law. They work with children in schools, and ask parents to workshops – showing videos given by other institutions and then discussing them. They have also conducted workshops for the national women’s union, Las Bartolinas.
According to Carla, the awareness-raising is having some effect – at least in terms of women being less hesitant to ask for help. The problem remains that most women are economically dependent on men and often have no alternative place to live. Thus it is good news that just yesterday, President Morales announced a new government regulation that backs the 2013 law with a greater allocation of funds for, amongst other things, women’s shelters. Nevertheless, for Carla, giving women an opportunity to earn an income and have financial independence is the most crucial step in freeing them from violent partners. There is still a long way to go.