Eugenia de Altura is a female graduate student conducting research on issues of women and gender in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America with the exception of Haiti, and over 60% of the country’s population is of indigenous descent. Eugenia’s postings explore women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive health in Bolivia and in Latin America as a whole.
Although violence against women is a worldwide problem, in Bolivia it is endemic—and local activists are taking both legal and practical measures to combat it.
A report released in 2008 by the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 70% of women in Bolivia suffer some form of violence. Recent acts of violence against Bolivian women that have made it to the local press include a young man who killed his female “friend” by hitting her over the head with a bottle, and then set her body on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence; a Bolivian migrant to Spain who was suffocated to death by her Peruvian boyfriend, and a man who murdered a sex worker in a hotel room and then attempted to flee the scene with the woman’s head inside of a cardboard box. Stories of violence that make it to the press are often the most sensationalistic, and many women suffer violence in their daily lives in ways that slip under the radar.
One organization combating violence in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, el Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer (CIDEM), notes that violence against women in the country is somewhat accepted—or at least tolerated—because of widespread sexist attitudes and beliefs. One woman I met at a CIDEM workshop told me that when she took her husband to trial for years of domestic abuse, the judge asked her, “And well, ma’am, were you neglecting your cooking and cleaning duties in the home?” Other women note that their partners attempt to excuse their acts of violence by arguing that they were drunk when they beat or raped their wives or girlfriends.
Due to high rates of violence against and murder of women in Bolivia, feminist activists in the country have been pressuring lawmakers to incorporate the term “femicide” or “feminicide” into legal codes, as a counterpart to “homicide.” The crime of feminicide--which gained international recognition due chiefly to the murders of women in Guatemala and Mexico—is understood as the murder of women simply because they are women. These murders are usually, but not always, perpetrated by male partners, ex-partners, family members, “friends,” or acquaintances. Activists want feminicide to be incorporated into penal codes as a hate crime carrying a prison term of at least 25 years. Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala represent three of the few countries that currently recognize and provide specific punishments for the crime of feminicide.
The problem with the penal codes of countries that fail to recognize feminicide is that many men who kill women in these nations are able to get off with disturbingly short prison sentences, since their crimes are often designated “crimes of passion.” Crime of passion defenses usually implicitly blame the murder victim for her aggressor’s crime, by saying that something that she did—a suspected or actual infidelity, a word of anger, or a domestic “failure”—provoked a violent reaction in the murderer; a reaction that is often deemed “natural” and “uncontrollable” in men. The activism of women in Bolivia represents the first step in changing people’s mentality, and in getting folks to realize that murder of women is never passionate—it is simply murder. And the men who commit it should pay for their crimes.