Most foreigners who have traveled around Latin America are familiar with the concept of machismo. Machismo is essentially described as assertively strong male pride, which leaves women being seen as the weaker gender. It tries to explain that men are naturally violent and justifies these violent actions by saying that they are to be expected from all men. This connection to the biological can make the concept of machismo more credible, even though scientists have proved that there is no true biological mandate behind the aggression of men. People twist stereotypes to make them accepted as true for society, which is what’s happening in Latin America and assisting in the creation of a patriarchal society.
Machismo can take on many forms and has been integrated into the lives of all those living in Latin America. Examples of this would be general feelings of superiority for men, feeling the need to defend their families, not being involved in the cooking or cleaning within their home, etc. If you’re thinking to yourself that this seems problematic for women, you would be right, but it is also something that is thought of as a staple of life and even many expats have become accustomed to it. Most female tourists only experience it as being catcalled on the street or not being taken seriously in a conversation. Observing the daily routines of women versus men in a typical home would reveal the deeper roots behind these actions that most tourists would simply find an annoyance.
Aside from these daily interactions, machismo can be problematic on a much larger scale and can involve normalizing aggression, homophobia, keeping women out of politics and even domestic or sexual violence. Bolivia particularly has been struggling with this and has the highest rate of domestic abuse in Latin America (Bott et al. 2013). This is not to say that all men act in such a manner, but problems do arise when the system promotes or accepts such behaviour. The consequences for women have persevered throughout the years.
In Bolivia over 50% of women experience abuse of some kind within their lifetime, oftentimes by their spouse or partner (Bott et al. 2013). This percentage could be even higher due to unreported cases. This abuse can take on various forms, including emotional, physical or sexual assault. Many women involved in politics often receive threats of violence in order to scare them into resigning from their positions or to force their hand in political decisions. Even outside of Bolivia, many women politicians in Latin America are killed after ignoring these threats.
The abuse stems from challenges presented within the male-dominated system itself. Women get caught up in a cycle of violence that often begins with abuse in their youth. Women feel trapped in abusive relationships due to a financial dependence. Especially in rural areas, education is not as easily accessible and the societal norms suggest that a woman’s role involves domestic activity and helping around the home as opposed to working for an income. Machismo structure enforces these ideals, convincing women to focus on the family and home starting from a young age. Almost 20% of women in Bolivia are illiterate (UNICEF 2003) and this rate is even higher in rural areas. This would create difficulties for women attempting to leave their abusers and trying to find sustainable jobs to support them along with their families.
There could be many other reasons for the high prevalence of abuse with women. Bolivia is one of the least developed countries, compared to its neighbors in South America. Although Bolivia is rich in resources, they are a landlocked country and this makes it difficult for them to export their goods. They have the highest rate of poverty as well. This could inhibit the education system from developing, if the state has fewer funds to contribute to schools outside of their larger cities.
Bolivia has the highest amount of indigenous people in Latin America (Amnesty International 2015). For those who choose to remain in rural areas, they have fewer resources available to them in terms of educational or work prospects. Although those of indigenous origins are in the majority they have still been subjected to discrimination in the work force. Only in 2005 was the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, elected in Bolivia. While the official language in Bolivia is Spanish, many indigenous only speak Quechua, Aymara or other native languages. Not only does this inhibit their ability to work in certain places, they may not fully comprehend the governmental laws and what their rights are.
Aside from the patriarchal problems and continuing repression, the individual consequences for women who have suffered abuse can be extremely detrimental. Physical abuse can leave bodily harm that is long lasting. But what many people don’t realize is that the extent of these consequences can be much more than just physical. Many women who have suffered sexual abuse experience reproductive health issues. This can stem from STIs that are passed on and go untreated or it can be caused from the violent nature of the assault. While Bolivia allows abortion in the case of rape, women may not be able to afford it or may be unwilling to step forward and instead will put themselves through extremely unsafe abortions (Amnesty International 2013). Women who have gone through abuse are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety in the future (Heise et al. 1994). And of course, many of these abuses result in death.
It is clear that Bolivia has an issue with these crimes and a huge concern is what is being done once these violations are brought to the attention of the government. The answer is disheartening because not a whole lot is being done. Action needs to be taken not only to protect these women from their abusers and make a life away from them possible, but also to prevent the continuation of Bolivia’s high prevalence of abuse.
Although there is a lot of work to be done still, there have been some steps in the right direction. After the murder of Juana Quispe, a councilwoman in La Paz (BBC 2014), there was finally enough media attention and public outrage to pass the Law Against the Harassment of and Political Violence Against Women in 2012. The law has different categories in order to clearly determine the seriousness of the harassment or violence and based on this, the punishments for the perpetrators. The law deals with any act ranging from pressuring a woman involved in politics to physical, psychological or sexual assaults (UN Women 2013). The sentences mainly focused on suspension without pay, but the more serious actions warranted jail time (Ley 243).
In 2013 another law was put into effect called the Comprehensive Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free of Violence. This law was created in order to protect women from abuse as well as to care for them should it occur, including reparations given to victims It states that the eradication of violence against women is a priority for the government of Bolivia (UNHR 2013). It also acknowledges the crime of femicide, the killing of women due to their sex, and sentences 30 years of prison for those who commit it (UN News Center 2013). In general, this law created harsher sentences for culprits of any kind of violence against women. While this seems like the ideal solution, rates of violence against women have not diminished. So why has this law been ineffective so far?
Many women are still afraid to seek help from these institutions. A stigma around sexual abuse especially is still pertinent and many women feel too ashamed to discuss what has happened to them. Another reason these culprits are not being brought to justice is within the fault of the legal system itself. The government has not dedicated enough money to help implement this law and so there simply are not enough specialists that are available to help with the immense number of cases. These women are watching as other women step forward to receive aid and then watch as the system fails to assist them. The criminal procedures take over 2 years and women are expected to pay all legal costs during this time (Álvarez 2013). The financial strain placed on these women for a process that may not even work in their favour is something most women are unwilling to subject themselves to. If women continue to see the failures of this law, they will be less likely to report their cases or to seek help in general.
Evidently Bolivia needs to place more of a focus on refining the enforcement of the law and funding social programs that will encourage women to feel comfortable enough to step forward and share their story. Once women see that others are suffering in the same manner that they are, hopefully they too will attempt to bring their abuser to justice. The courts will need to find a procedure to efficiently and effectively prosecute the offenders as well as provide assistance to the women who have suffered. While these changes will not happen overnight, steps are being taken in the right direction and many NGOs and human rights organizations are stepping forward to support this process.
Álvarez, Helen. “Bolivia: Law 348 and Impunity.” Servicio De Noticias De La Mujer De Latinoamérica Y El Caribe.December 2, 2013. http://www.redsemlac.net/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1840:bolivia-law-no-348-and-impunity&catid=59:semlac-reports.
Bolivia: Briefing to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Amnesty International. Report. 2015. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AMR1816692015ENGLISH.pdf.
“Bolivian Women Battle against Culture of Harassment – BBC News.” BBC News. March 12, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26446066.
Bott, Sarah, Alessandra Guedes, Mary Goodwin, and Jennifer Mendoza. “Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Pan American Health Organization, 2013. http://www.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=21426&Itemid=.
“Committee against Torture Examines Report of Bolivia.” United Nations Human Rights. May 17, 2013. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13339&LangID=E.
“Gender-Based Political Violence.” UN Women. 2013. http://www2.unwomen.org/mdgf/C/Bolivia_C.html.
Heise, Lori L., Alanagh Raikes, Charlotte H. Watts, and Anthony B. Zwi. “Violence against Women: A Neglected Public Health Issue in Less Developed Countries.” Social Science & Medicine 39, no. 9 (1994): 1165-179. Science Direct.
“Ley Contra El Acoso Y Violencia Política Hacia Las Mujeres – Ley 243.” Infoleyes. May 28, 2012. http://bolivia.infoleyes.com/shownorm.php?id=3807.
“The Situation of Women in Bolivia.” UNICEF Bolivia. 2003. http://www.unicef.org/bolivia/children_1538.htm.
“UN Welcomes New Bolivian Law Broadening Protection of Women from Violence.” UN News Center. March 12, 2013. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44351#.VvHoeRIrK9Y.