Thursday, 11 February 2010

BOLIVIAN WOMEN DEVELOP RIGHTS 'LIKE NEVER BEFORE'

Bolivian women spearhead Morales revolution

By Andres Schipani BBC News, La Paz

[Pictured: Justice Minister Copa started her political career as a trade unionist]

In the early 19th Century, Bolivian women fought alongside
men for the country's independence from colonial Spain.
They stormed into battle on horseback, seized cities and
were on the frontline.

But their presence on the battlefield did not translate
into presence in the political life of their nation. For
many, their education, job opportunities and political
rights were limited - until now.

"For a long time, we women have been excluded - it was one
of the dark legacies of the colonial model," the recently
appointed Justice Minister, Nilda Copa, told the BBC at her
office.

"I remember my mother didn't know how to read and write,
neither did my grandmother... not because they didn't want
to learn," Ms Copa says.

Ms Copa joined a trade union very young, when she was only
16, because she felt a drastic change was needed and that
was the only platform where women "had some voice".

And that change seems to have arrived. Today, posters
proclaiming the slogans of female Bolivian heroes such as
indigenous rebel Bartolina Sisa and independence icon Juana
Azurduy plaster the walls of several ministries.

That shows the fervour felt in the Bolivia of President Evo
Morales, who seems to be changing things not only for the
country's indigenous majority, but also for its women.

Today women are involved in running the country as never
before. Mr Morales began his second mandate last month with
a cabinet reshuffle that complies with the gender parity
stated in the new constitution he pushed for.

Now the new cabinet has 10 men and 10 women, three of them
indigenous.

"There used to be a lot of racism and machismo. There is
still some, but now that structure is changing thanks to
brother Evo Morales," Ms Copa says.

"Today, for example, there are no illiterate women, but
women with enough capacity to develop activities at the
same level as men. But the fight has been harsh and long."

Her voice trails off and she focuses on a picture of her
and Mr Morales from the times when she was a member of the
assembly that wrote Bolivia's new constitution.

Homage

For Mr Morales, achieving gender parity in the cabinet was
a long-held aim.

"One of my dreams has come true - half the cabinet seats
are held by women," Mr Morales said recently. "This is a
homage to my mother, my sister and my daughter."

Mr Morales said that since his early days as a leader of
the coca trade union, he always worked towards getting
women into decision-making posts based on the chacha warmi,
a concept that in the local Aymara indigenous culture means
that men and women are complementary in an egalitarian way.

But another sign that women's political influence is on the
rise is the fact that they now occupy an unprecedented 30%
of seats in Bolivia's new legislative branch.

One of them is Gabriela Montano, a senator who represents
the eastern city of Santa Cruz - Bolivia's opposition
heartland - on behalf of Mr Morales's party, the Movement
Towards Socialism (MAS).

"This is the fruit of the women's fight: the tangible
proofs of this new state, of this new Bolivia are the
increasing participation of the indigenous peoples and the
increasing participation of women in the decision-making
process of this country," Ms Montano told the BBC.

Ms Montano was the subject of several physical attacks
during her stint as the government's envoy to Santa Cruz,
and last year she was kept at a secret location as a safety
precaution after she was threatened by opposition groups.

"The awakening of women has been brewing for a while. Women
have been a key element in the consolidation of this
process of change led by President Morales, from the
rallies, the protests, the fights. Now, they will be a key
element in affairs of national interest," Ms Montano says.

However, while change for women is under way, for some
there is still a long way to go until full equality is
achieved.

"Not long ago, 10 years ago, nobody talked about women in
power in this country, that was unimaginable," explains
Katia Uriona, of the women's advocacy group Coordinadora de
la Mujer.

"And even if I applaud all of these victories, I am aware
this is not enough. Now we have to see if all of this is
translated into something concrete that will truly change
the gender face of this country."

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