Activists: Bolivia needs to do more to stop killings, violence against women

Volunteers in the U.N.'s UNiTE to End Violence against Women Campaign perform in a flash mob in Bicentanario Square in La Paz, Bolivia last year. (Credit: UN Women/Flickr)

The number of women killed in Bolivia is on the rise, but activists say there are plenty of actions the government can and should be taking to combat it.

Ninety-four women were killed last year, according to the most recent report from the Attorney General’s Office, 93 were killed in 2015. And within the first two days of 2017, the Special Force Against Violence (FELCV) has registered two killings in the department of La Paz. Some reports suggest that the numbers are higher, and that variability of the reporting is masking a larger problem.

In one of latest cases, investigators said a 31-year-old man had been drinking alcohol and then beat his 21-year-old girlfriend to death on New Year’s Day. The other case, which happened in the rural region of Chulumani, is still under investigation.

According to the Vice Ministry for Equal Opportunities, an estimated eight out of 10 Bolivian women have suffered some form of violence, 87 percent of the time the abuser is a family member.

Entrenched ideas about masculinity play a major role in the problem. A broken justice system provides women with little legal recourse. The government also lacks the institutional capacity to enforce a law designed to protect women, according to an Oxfam investigation in October.

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Gender-based violence has been found to not only leave physical and psychological scars, but incurs direct costs in the form of medical expenses, crisis services and legal services. Indirectly, families suffer when an earner is killed or is missing work because she is hurt. And anything that disrupts women at work also hurts their chances of reaching equal economic opportunity at work.

In an effort to combat the problem, President Evo Morales’ administration passed Law 348 in 2013, which is designed to prevent intimate-partner violence and punish abusers. The law, which is now being implemented, calls for special prosecutors and courts for gender-based crimes, shelters for women, and makes femicide a crime punishable by 30 years in prison.

Still, advocates have criticized the government for being too slow to enforce the law. Since the law’s passage, only 20 percent of settled cases have resulted in prison sentences, according to Bolivia’s national newspaper, La Razón. The prosecutors who handle gender-based crimes find themselves with as many as 600 cases at a time.

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Advocates are calling for a variety of initiatives and legislation to speed up reform. Greta Vargas, from the anarcha-feminist collective Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), said her organization has been asking the government to declare a red alert for cases of femicide since 2015.

“This would mean the delivery of greater economic resources, both for the special unit that attends these cases and for the legal aspect, that is to say, lawyers, but so far we have not been taken into account,” said the activist in an interview with El Día.

Other advocates say the government must work on education, transmit roles with gender equity, and call for the government to provide victims with therapy to help break the psychological bond and dependence with their partner.

Most advocates say the 2013 policy can work in theory, but that it would require better enforcement and stronger commitment if it is to be more than just words on paper. If implemented correctly, they said, the policy could serve as a role model for other South American countries.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.