Time for change

13 Jan, 2016 | Anna Grace

Social issues

The Strive for Gender Equality Within the Plurinational State

From documents demanding change to señoras selling cheese: the fight for equality can be undertaken in many ways. I explore two very different approaches to empowering women in Bolivia.

I am standing in a small tranquil garden in the Sopocachi neighborhood of La Paz, surrounded by chattering, music and laughter. This is La Casa de los ningunos, and today is market day. Stalls of freshly grown herbs, recently dug-up potatoes, marvellously organic vegetables and dangerously tempting cheeses make up the feria. Shiny, a deep purple in colour and fresh as anything, the aubergine I hold in my hand is far superior to any I have found so far in the local supermarket. I tell this to the woman who sells it to me. She smiles. ‘We’re here every Saturday. Come back next week for more.’ The pride she takes in the product is understandable, having grown it herself. Yet for the mostly female vendors of the feria, this is much more than a mere weekend hobby.

‘We want them to recognise themselves as women, to see how valuable they really are.’

Joey Astorga and Lorena de la Torre of International Citizen Service (ICS), the organisation behind the project, talk to me about their work with the women of El Alto. ‘We try to empower women through urban agriculture’, Joey says, explaining how they build the vegetable gardens, which enable these women to earn a living. Isolated, poor and often raising their children single-handedly, the women the project helps can rely on their own products to feed their families, generating an income at the same time. Each weekend, the sellers earn around 600 bolivianos each. Additionally, the project runs workshops dealing with violence against women and sexual harassment, as well as teaching the women about their rights and the importance of contraception. The project educates and supports individual women, leaving a very positive impact on their lives. On a personal scale, the project works wonders; yet to tackle gender inequality in society as a whole, a different approach is required.

‘The biggest obstacle which Bolivian women face’, Elizabeth Salguero, an expert strategist at UN Women Bolivia, tells me, ‘is the patriarchal society.’ Patriarchy, sexism, machismo – however you wish to call it, the underlying sentiment is the same: gender inequality. Salguero’s group have helped draft a document that recommends policies and laws to help better the situation of women living in Bolivia. It was recently presented to the government.

Salguero sums up the work of her organisation: ‘[UN Women] tries to be a bridge between the state and civil society. It tries to establish a dialogue, to find out how we can work to empower women and, therefore, to achieve gender equality.’

A bridge – this is exactly what is needed, a way of uniting strategy and the people it is destined to help. The document recently presented to the government looks to facilitate this union, to improve the everyday lives of women in all parts of Bolivia. Yet, I ask myself, how feasible is it to convert strategy into action and how far can policy go towards achieving the goal of a truly gender-equal society?

Female empowerment – that is undoubtedly the aim of both projects, but the difference lies in the approach. A practical supply of aid, hands-on interaction and an emphasis on communication and education: the work of ICS produces a visible change in the lives of the women they deal with. Inevitably, though, they cannot reach out to all those who need their help. The national agenda of UN Women attempts to include all women, to empower all women. Its demands are well presented, rigorously researched; yet, with a scale so large, it is difficult to tell whether anyone is being helped at all.

Projects such as those by ICS and UN Women are making important steps towards the ending of discrimination, towards changing sexist attitudes and norms, towards achieving a safer society for all Bolivian women. Salguero spoke about a ‘triple discrimination’ which occurs due to ‘being poor, being indigenous and being a woman.’ In Bolivia, where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line and almost two-thirds of inhabitants are indigenous, the struggle is real. However, progress is being made in every policy changed, in every person educated and in every aubergine sold in that market; a positive step is made towards a brighter, more equal future, a future in which gender discrimination – in all its forms – can be ousted from the Bolivian way of life. It seems that it is time for change, and that time is now.

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