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Bolivian women fight back against climate of violence

Women in Bolivia – and across the world – face multiple forms of systemic violence; to those we can now add climate-change impacts. One women-led community in peri-urban Bolivia is working together to free themselves from physical and other forms of abuse, and at the same time building in climate resilience.

Early one Saturday morning in Cochabamba, Bolivia, María was assaulted, raped, strangled and her body dismembered by the doorman of the building where she worked. Her aggressor tried to hide her body as if nothing had happened. María Sonia Vásquez Tomás, aged 27, was a domestic worker with two children, aged eight and two. This latest violent case makes Cochabamba the province in Bolivia with the highest number of feminicidios – women murdered by men because they are women.

Bolivia has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Latin America. In a country where a woman dies every three days because of gender-based violence, and 7 out of 10 women have suffered violence in their lives, it’s important to talk about the systemic causes that underlie this – to talk about patriarchy.

In 2013, Law 348 – the ‘Comprehensive Law to Guarantee Women a Life Free from Violence’ – was enacted in Bolivia. Despite this, reported cases of feminicidios increased to 206 since the enactment of the law in 2013. Only eight of these aggressors were sentenced and prosecution rates for gender-based violence are extremely low. Many Bolivians view the causes of such violence as alcoholism, sexual jealousy, and lack of religious morals. Others, such as one member of President Evo Morales’ MAS party, have suggested ‘[showing] women how to behave so that they are not sexually assaulted’ as an appropriate solution.

These views clearly don’t address the complexity of the causes of gender-based violence. Silvia Federici, in her book Revolution at Point Zero, points out that the explanation is partly economic competition and partly male frustration if they can’t fulfil the role of family provider. These arise because men now have less control over women’s bodies and their work.

The violence that women experience is structural, not just physical. The unequal gender burden of climate change is also a form of violence, and is extremely pertinent in a climate-vulnerable country such as Bolivia.

The community of María Auxiliadora

These varied forms of gender violence come across in the story of Doña María Eugenia. She is a former President of María Auxiliadora, a Cochabamba community. María Auxiliadora is unique in Bolivia – only women can own land or hold leadership positions in the community.

Doña María Eugenia began working at 13 as a domestic worker. She then trained as a baker and sold pastries on the street to support her family. She had to deal with her partner’s violence: ‘He never gave me money for anything, not for our child, nor during my pregnancy. Rather, I suffered abuse during the pregnancy, and nearly lost my child after being kicked.’

With the support of the community she managed to get him out of her life before he killed her: ‘Thanks to their support I decided to leave him, and the violence in my life stopped. I felt as if a thorn had left my body.’ She then took on the presidency of the community and had to deal with other forms of violence: ‘They used to shout at me because I didn’t have a partner; they told me I wasn’t a family woman.’

Doña María Eugenia’s economic independence, her political and social activism in the community, plus the fact that she is a woman, a single mother and resource-poor, provoked this discrimination and violence.  But her bravery and the community’s support mean that she now has a home free from physical violence.

The impact of climate change on women

The women of María Auxiliadora have fought to free their lives from physical violence and marginalization. But other, newer forms of systemic violence are also starting to take their toll on women. The impacts of climate change combine with the social and economic disadvantage that many women suffer in patriarchal societies. In the aftermath of disasters and climate impacts such as floods, droughts, disease and migration it is women who bear the heaviest burden:

Women are usually those who stay put [in the wake of disasters], not due to lack of initiative or traditional restraints… They are the ones who have to make sure that the children have food, often themselves going without it, and who make sure that the elderly or the sick are cared for.
– Silvia Federici

The women of María Auxiliadora have joined together to support each other in liberating themselves from gender violence and to gain independence. But their unity has also resulted in a community that responds to climate change by drawing on their resilience and developing new economic and social systems that promote sustainability and justice – for example by  growing and preserving their own food,  sharing communal tasks, and working to conserve resources. The experiences of María Auxiliadora can inspire us to build alternatives – ones which not only respond to unjust climate impacts but also to the violence and discrimination that women face in other areas of their lives.