When Bertha Quispe was elected mayor of her rural Bolivian community in 2015, she was part of a history-making election. Thanks to a gender parity law, just over half of all city councilors elected were women — the same has been true in the nation’s Congress since elections in late 2014. Along with Rwanda, Bolivia became one of only two democracies in the world where there are more women in Congress than men. But Quispe, 30 years old at the time, learned quickly that shattering a glass ceiling in Bolivia can result in bodily harm.
Soon after Quispe took office, men in her municipality began to demand her resignation. She was intimidated, threatened and followed. To block her access to City Hall, her harassers lit dynamite in her path and covered the entryway to the building with bricks. But it wasn’t until Quispe won a court order allowing her to access her office that things got really ugly: Her assailants ambushed her, and she narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt.
Quispe is far from alone. The parity law passed in 2010 requires parties to pick as many female candidates as male ones for elections under the country’s proportional representation system — parties win seats proportional to the number of votes they receive. The law has won Bolivia global plaudits, including from then U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2016. At the moment, 53 percent of Congress members and 51 percent of all municipal councilors are women. But away from the international spotlight, a still-entrenched machista culture is fighting back, sparking a growing and violent backlash aimed at getting women to resign from the offices to which they were elected.
A situation has been created in which women are putting their lives at risk by holding public office.
Katia Uriona, Supreme Electoral Tribunal president
In just the first six months of 2018, the Association of Bolivian Councilwomen (Acobol) received 70 complaints of political violence or harassment — higher than the 64 received in all of 2017, and 65 in 2016. Independently, the governmental Democratic Parity Observatory received 36 complaints in the first four months of the year, up from 11 registered in all of 2017. Female politicians are routinely facing intimidation and threats. Some have been locked in their offices for days. Others have been locked out of them and beaten. One pregnant councilwoman was kicked so hard last year that she miscarried. Activists says many female politicians never report violence for fear of an even greater backlash.
“A situation has been created in which women are putting their lives at risk by holding public office,” says Katia Uriona, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Bolivia’s highest electoral authority.
Bolivia is right around the halfway stage of the five-year period between elections, and that, say observers, may be a key reason behind the increasing violence against female politicians. The country’s electoral system allows each elected representative to have an “alternate” representative — someone from the same party who can step in if the elected candidate needs to vacate the seat. But the “alternate” can’t be the same gender as the elected official.
After the 2014 elections, many elected councilors agreed to cede their seats to their alternate councilors halfway through their term, supposedly as gratitude for their support during the campaign. But these agreements, though sometimes made in writing and even notarized, are illegal, says Sandra Silva, Acobol’s legal adviser. And there’s a sharp gender skew in the agreements. “The pressure to cede at the midpoint of the term is on the female councilors, while male councilors are not under the same pressure to give up their seats to women,” says Silva. The strategy is working. The parity observatory registered 10 resignations of female politicians in the first four months of 2018, compared with three in all of 2017.
After her 2014 election as councilor of Sica Sica municipality, a two-hour drive from La Paz, Victoria Paco agreed she would step down and let her alternate take power in December 2018. Her alternate, however, demanded she step down this past May. When Paco refused to budge until December, she was blocked from entering the council. As she stood her ground, an angry mob surrounded her, hitting and kicking her for 15 minutes. Three weeks after the attack, she lifts her pollera — a traditional skirt worn by indigenous women — to reveal a fading bruise on her thigh. “This is where my alternate kicked me, the one who wants my position,” she says.
Councilwoman Juana Quispe didn’t live to tell her story. In 2012, after months of abuse and threats, she was found strangled on the shores of a river in her district, La Paz. Her murder prompted the passage of a law criminalizing gender-based political harassment and violence, the first and only of its kind in Latin America. But six years later, there hasn’t been a conviction in the case, or any other for that matter.
“Formally speaking, Bolivia is the most advanced country in the region on this issue, but the reality on the ground is different,” says Laura Albaine, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires who has researched gender-based political violence in Bolivia.
The inability — or unwillingness — of the country’s courts to ensure punishment in such crimes is spawning a culture of impunity. In 2018, according to the parity observatory’s statistics, those accused of political harassment and violence against female politicians were themselves mayors and councilors in 72 percent of the cases reported.
Acobol’s Silva isn’t giving up hopes of a conviction in the Juana Quispe murder case and that such a verdict could send a broader message. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, says Uriona, has recently presented Congress with a bill that would require parties to apply gender parity provisions in their internal elections and to adopt measures to prevent harassment and violence against their own female members. The bill, if passed, could help curb the kind of violence Paco suffered.
But laws don’t erode stereotypes. “From the start,” recalls Bertha Quispe, “they said, ‘How can a young woman lead us in our municipality?’”
If the violence continues, the gains made in women’s participation in politics could be threatened in the 2019 national elections and the 2020 municipal polls, warns Acobol’s director, Bernarda Sarue. “We have a parity law, but will women be willing to run and get into politics after seeing all this violence and harassment?” she asks. “Women are terrified.”
For some, like Bertha Quispe and Paco, however, the violence may have backfired. Paco, who had agreed to step down in December, has decided she will stay on till the end of her term, even if she faces more attacks. “They gave me a beating,” she says. “But they also gave me more strength.”
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