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Male Machismo Is Still Alive and Well in Bolivia, Despite Evo Morales’ Claims to Combat Violence Against Women

Despite the passage of a law meant to stop violence against women, 90 percent of reported femicides from 2013 are still unsolved.
March 18, 2015, 8:00pm

Bolivian President Evo Morales. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Which world leader declared that he wants to remove the panties of female ministers as he strummed a lute in his country's main plaza? Or that he beds members of his country's most prominent indigenous women's organization?

Many would be surprised to hear that it's Bolivia's Evo Morales. But Morales' Rob Ford-ish quotes are not the news-making international headlines one might assume. Instead, he has been winning a place in the hearts of many people of conscience for his progressive reforms to the poor South American country's laws and constitution—paying particular attention to women.

Since Morales came to power, he has enshrined electoral gender parity in the constitution and passed a law to combat violence against women. Entitled "The Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free of Violence," it names 16 forms of violence against women and sets the punishment for femicide at 30 years in jail with no possibility of parole.

But many criticize the law for having no teeth. Among the loudest critics are Mujeres Creando, a renowned Bolivian feminist organization. They are the sharp stone in Morales' quinoa soup.

According to Bolivia's Center for Women's Information and Development (CIDEM), since the law's approval in March 2013 the rate of femicides has increased and only a handful of perpetrators have been busted, leaving over 90 percent of reported femicides unpunished.

Andrea Callejas coordinates the Mujeres Creando centre in Bolivia's capital, La Paz. "The law was a reaction to protests around Hanalí Huaycho, a journalist murdered by her policeman husband, something that happens every day," she says. "People started to ask why the government does nothing. Two or three months later, there was a law, made very fast and badly. And nothing has happened."

Ask about Mujeres Creando in Bolivia and you will hear words of praise for their work to dismantle machismo, but you will invariably hear they are too radical, locas, and man-haters. It is not surprising; for them, nothing is sacred. They even dare to take a stab at Latin America's most beloved revolutionary hero: Che Guevara. One of their most notorious pieces of graffiti, scrawled across neighbourhoods in Bolivia, reads: "Evo and Che are the same: irresponsible fathers."

These are two of countless men who have made Mujeres Creando's list of irresponsible fathers, one of many tactics to break machismo. Published in their magazine, the Malhablada, and announced over their FM station, Radio Deseo, the list is so effective at encouraging men to make alimony payments and pick up the slack that, in some cases, just the threat of being added to the list has resolved months of missing child support payments.

The CIDEM reports that, in recent years, not only has the number of femicides in Bolivia increased, but also their violent nature: a woman's eyes are sliced out with a knife after she's been raped; a pregnant woman is gang raped by her partner and his friends and then beaten to death; and a woman in her third trimester is killed by a hitman hired by her husband. CIDEM likens the female body in Bolivia to a battlefield.

Greta Vargas of Mujeres Creando lives in Santa Cruz, where she is the coordinator of one of Mujeres Creando's two legal clinics, Women in Search of Justice, dedicated to providing legal support to women facing gendered violence.

The mayor of her city, Percy Fernandez, holds a double title: last year, Evo Morales lauded him as the best mayor in Bolivia; he also holds the unofficial record for the most times being caught on national television groping prominent women, including a renowned journalist. Morales has remained quiet on the second point.

"Violence always existed," Vargas says. "The difference now is that there is more awareness…NGOs, the government, and so on, say you should denounce violence, but it is contradictory. When you go to the police they want to get rid of you, the authorities doubt you. They are helping to create a man who knows that the police won't do anything, discrediting the word of women. Impunity. This society is making monsters that can kill."

Callejas echoes what many women are saying: that this is a backlash from men as "more women are rebelling and achieving their dreams."

Impunity for rape and murder isn't only awarded to jealous exes. In September, Maria Galindo, co-founder of Mujeres Creando, presented a new film with an uncut interview: an indigenous cleaning woman speaks for the first time about about being drugged and raped by a legislator in a government building during a New Year's party. The state defended the rapist and ignored the woman. In the background of the interview, left there for the obvious effect, a parliamentary session led by Evo Morales, laughing and smiling, runs its course.

It is no wonder another of the group's popular graffiti reads: "Behind every happy woman is an abandoned machista."