Despite their social and economic differences, all Bolivian women have one thing in common: they all suffer discrimination and inequality due to their sex.
The traditional image of the Bolivian woman is often that of the illiterate ‘cholita’, working on a street stall. Cholitas have for many decades, however, represented an important part of the Bolivian workforce. Since 1985 the cholita’s economic activity has risen dramatically. It seems, however, that the success of these women is often overshadowed by that of their male counterparts.
Cultural prejudice about the role of women, enforced by the male population in particular, continues to lead to the restriction of female rights in both public and private spheres. Bolivia continues to have a strong ‘machismo’ culture that ensures that men take control of social, economic and political power. Hence women are condemned to suffer gender inequalities in all aspects of their lives.
Do women receive the same opportunities in education and employment as men?
In Bolivia, the female illiteracy rate is more than double the illiteracy rate for males. As a result, international organizations, such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), have moved to focus on initiatives that will raise the status of women in Bolivia. To make sure these changes are permanent, they also encourage male participation to foster acceptance of changing women’s roles.
A focus on education has also lead to changes in what is being taught. Of particular interest is the ‘Reforma Educativa’, which currently states that sex education should start at elementary school. Training for teachers is, however, minimal and many have little or no skills in this topic area. This compounds many of the initial inequalities that proper sex education could overcome.
According to Teresa Lanza, coordinator of pressure group Catholics for a Free Choice:
“Men continue to have more opportunities in education and easier access to work. Although women and men in Bolivia today do many of the same jobs, women often receive a lower salary than their male counterparts for identical work”.
Do women have a legal voice?
Women in Bolivia have had the vote since 1952. But access to the vote is quite another matter. Despite having the right to vote at the age of 18 years (including those women in jail), many still do not exercise their right to vote. It seems that many Bolivian women do not know the real meaning of the vote and each electoral process shows a high abstinence of women throughout the country. Sadly, even those who do vote are often pressured to follow the example set by male family members, in particular to mimic their husband’s views.
Are women also discriminated against at home?
The ‘macho’ culture also continues to have a huge influence in many Bolivian homes. This culture is particularly strongly displayed in relation to the common incidences of domestic violence. Although there are laws in Bolivia punishing domestic violence, incidence rates remain high due to the lack of adherence to Law 1674.
As Teresa Lanza explains: “The Family Protection Brigades just don’t have the budget. They do not even have computers and paper to be able to do their job”.
Women also suffer considerable inequalities due to their role as mother and child-bearer. The availability of contraceptives for Bolivian women is minimal and the official figures for Catholic women using contraceptives are low. This has, in turn, resulted in a high fertility rate with many women having more children than they want to.
Bolivia’s maternal mortality rate is the second highest in South America, with more than 40% of pregnant women experiencing some type of complication during pregnancy or childbirth. Unwanted pregnancies, particularly among the young, are another contributing factor to maternal mortality. In many cases these deaths are caused by unsafe abortions.
Why are so many women dying?
Bolivian women are risking their lives by going to seedy backstreet abortion clinics in the hope of a quick end to their lonely and agonizing torment. In a country with one of the world’s strictest abortion laws and a powerful Catholic influence, however, this phenomenon comes as little surprise.
“Abortion is murder and we condemn it under all circumstances.” This is the view held by the Catholic Church and one that does not provide any support for women who are crying out for it.
Although the church condemns abortion, the law allows it in cases of: rape, incest, foetal deformity or if the mother’s life is in danger. However, the church has a powerful influence over the law and sometimes intervenes even in legal abortion cases. As a result, Latin America has the highest number of illegal abortions in the world.
A Bolivian woman’s chance of surviving an illegal abortion depends on wealth. Licensed and willing doctors can perform this procedure in return for the kind of high price that only middle-class women can afford. Poorer women can only afford to go to the backstreet abortion clinic, where the usual rate is U$25 each time. The sanitation in these places is poor and the methods used are often inhumane.
In desperation many women try to perform the abortion themselves. Some use the more common methods such as: pills, infusions or injections. Others use sharp instruments such as knitting needles and knives. These women butcher themselves and can bleed to death if they do not seek help, or if help is refused.
Approximately 500 women die in Bolivia each year from induced abortions. Many of those who die in hospital from failed abortions are never officially registered; the number of deaths recorded should be much greater.
Some hospitals refuse to treat abortion cases. Distraught women are turned away at the door because doctors do not want to break the law. However, those that do manage to get an abortion are not guaranteed a successful one. The National Division of Maternal and Infant Health conducted a study in 1980 that confirmed three in ten maternal deaths to be a direct result of abortion complications.
Although the majority of Catholics are anti-abortion, there are some who believe that women should have the right to use contraception. The group ‘Catholics for the Right to Decide’ believes that women should be allowed to control their reproductive system and that, by doing so, it does not mean they are going against their faith.
An effective way of putting an end to the cruel practice of unsafe abortions is through education. The fertility rate in general is higher in rural communities, where women tend to have four more children than middle class, educated women.
The law and the church both agree that education is vital for eliminating this illegal practice. A sexual health education program implemented in Bolivia by the Population Council begins at primary school level. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has taken responsibility for educating young girls about ‘natural’ contraception and family planning.
Thankfully there are worldwide organisations such as IPAS and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), whose aim is to help women in developing countries. They raise awareness of sexual and maternal health in many ways, such as organising workshops in the cities, working with the Ministry of Health and training providers for public health facilities.
In order to reduce the abortion rates further the mentality of Bolivian men must be changed. Not all but many pressure their wives or partners into having sex while retaining their Catholic beliefs with regards to contraception. The macho mentality in many Catholic countries encourages men to father as many children as possible. If they don’t, they will not be regarded with as much respect as those that do.
Although abortion is treated with much hostility, there is now some hope for the women that make the decision to go through with the operation. Education and support from all parties is crucial in the fight to eliminate the practice of clandestine abortions, which has claimed so many lives unnecessarily.
Abortion and Reproductive Facts
- Number of illegal abortions that may take place per year in Bolivia: 40,000
- Percentage of maternal deaths caused by unsafe abortions: 27-35%
- Percentage of Bolivian women aged 15-49 currently married/in relationships using modern contraception: 25.2%
- Percentage of women that think two children is ideal: 40%