Women politicians in Bolivia face increasing harassment and violence

World Today

Bolivia is one of only two democracies in the world – the other is Rwanda – where there are more women in congress than men. But as women gain more political power, they’re also becoming the target of violent attacks from those opposed to change.

CGTN’s Dan Collyns reports from La Paz.

History was made in Bolivia in 2010 when its Congress passed a parity law. The law mandates political parties pick as many female candidates as male candidates to run in elections. It was more remarkable still because the country remains one of the worst in the region for violence against women, particularly at the hands of partners.

Here in Bolivia’s parliament, 53 percent of Congressional lawmakers are women. Bolivia leads the region in terms of gender parity in politics. But old patterns die hard and entrenched sexist attitudes make being a woman in politics a dangerous job. It was a risk Soledad Chapeton was prepared to take when she was elected in 2015 as the first female mayor of El Alto, the city next to La Paz.

“In politics, women have a lot of heart, a lot of passion in what we do,” she said. “We’ve had a lot more anger and rage directed toward us during the past three years. Out critics think we’re more vulnerable, and that we’ll want to escape or quit, but opposition has had the opposite effect. I’m not going to give them the pleasure of seeing me give up. I’m here because more than half the city voted me into this job.”

Being a political opponent of President Evo Morales, in one of his traditional strongholds, has not been easy. In the run-up to a key vote in 2016, a mob set fire to Chapeton’s office, killing six people. While she was unharmed, she realizes other women politicians have not been as fortunate.

“Obviously, there’s more risk when you take a position of influence,” Chapeton said. “If violence is so common at a street level, then politics in Bolivia will be no exception. There are many examples we could talk about.”

But today there’s more awareness about gender violence. These teen mothers are learning how to make a living and raise their children in a society where they are often looked down upon. Female politicians, from parliamentarians to local councilors, are also fighting a surge in violence and harassment which peaked this year.

“We know of cases where the councilors have had their salaries taken away,” said Bernarda Sarué, the Executive Director of the Association of Bolivian Councilwomen. “They don’t report it because they’re afraid they’ll be attacked if they do. There’s bullying and the threat of violence. The intimidation can also be social, cultural or economic.”

Some analysts say the number of attacks are increasing.

“Not so long ago women’s participation in politics was minimal,” said Maria Ricaldi, Bolivia’s Human Rights Coordinator for Women. “Politics was men’s territory. The increased participation of women has generated violence because men have lost some of their power to make decisions.”

Now there are laws to protect women’s rights but legislation can’t change sexist attitudes, and analysts warn if the attacks on women continue they could prove a deterrent to more women becoming leaders.