iKNOW Politics: I’d like to begin by asking you about your political career. When did it begin and what inspired you to get involved? What opportunities and obstacles have you come across as a woman in politics?
As early as secondary schooling and the beginning of my psychology degree, I had opportunities to take on responsibilities, such as course representative and university leader. I also participated in the series of preparatory conferences for the International Women’s Year, as well as other activities related to performing and visual arts.
However, the cap on opportunities that stems from being a woman in a predominantly conservative and macho society such as that of Cochabamba, is what pushed me to find answers to explain the discrimination, sometimes subtle and other times brazen, that I was experiencing personally. This was the reality, despite the fact that I grew up in a more liberal family headed by maternal grandmother, a businesswoman of great charisma who was ahead of her time. This was the beginning.
Writings by Simone de Beauvoir, the poem Nacer Hombre (To Be Born Male) by Adela Zamudio, as well the recognition of women’s civil and political rights, were inevitable sources in addressing these early concerns.
This was coupled with the fact that as a foreign exchange student in Canada, I was exposed to second-wave feminist thought and the generational political movements of that time. These were the seeds that would later lead me to join movements and political action for women’s freedom. It was a particularly difficult time to escape from the influence of a highly politicized generation that was living in the context of the Cold War, an ideological debate inspired by libertarian and anti-colonization youth movements, as well as Liberation Theology, which tapped on the doors of the Catholic Church.
I started college in times of dictatorship and from the very beginning I formed part of the leadership that fought to restore university autonomy and challenged authoritarian militarism. There, I established my first political contacts in secrecy.
As a psychology student, I worked in a children’s center that cared for children and adolescents who were (as we say now) “differently abled,” not only caused by genetic lesions, but mostly preventable pre- and post-natal neurological trauma associated with poverty and a lack of access to maternal and child health services. The drama that these families lived greatly affected me.
At that point, I realized the importance of public policies as the essence of political definitions and actions given the inadequate impact of welfare volunteers. Politics is the field of action and governing that can revert the socio-economic issues that lead to social unrest, stemming from the poverty and inequality that still affect our countries.
At that time, I decided to join the Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR) – the party aligned with social democracy – who’s Women’s Front began to launch a political and ideological line of thought that put women’s political participation on the agenda both within and outside of the party. This dynamic of reflection and analysis on women’s issues from a new perspective was developed alongside the fight to restore democracy.
I consider myself part of the generation that made the conquest of democracy possible, which will soon celebrate 30 years of uninterrupted rule. On the one hand, this democracy, with its ups and downs, explains the collapse of the party system – including that of my own party – and on the other hand the progress of this new period of state reforms that helps crystallize political inclusion for previously marginalized sectors.
As for obstacles, I do not want to bring up the commonly mentioned factors that this response elicits. I will highlight a few, however. This includes the conflict of roles and expectations regarding what is traditionally expected of women, existential dilemmas, the fear of “success” and opportunities that would open up a horizon of freedom for me, which I both craved and feared at the same time.
Another limitation is related to the fact that the influx of women into politics coincided with an overall discredit for political activity, both in practice and as a career choice. This questioning, coming from communitarianism and participatory collectivism, is what would ultimately secure representative democracy.
Another limiting factor for the deployment of diverse political potential relates to patriarchal nature and the “macho” logic present in the competition for weakly institutionalized, informal political offices, where masculine caudillismo and cronyism abound, in addition to a deep-seated authoritarian political culture based on a friend or foe mentality. The financial limitations on internal party elections and electoral campaigns put women in a particularly disadvantageous position.
On the other hand, we must be aware that mistakes and blunders are paid dearly and that the demand for absolute “loyalty” has specific implications for women politicians. In contexts of political polarization, women are pressured to demonstrate their loyalty by assuming “disciplinary” roles that are sometimes authoritarian, scarcely reflective and inhibit the transforming, proactive and democratic power of their participation.
I will summarize opportunities in the following question.
iKNOW Politics: In recent years, changes in Bolivia favoring gender equality have marked important precedents at the international level. Could you tell us what factors have been the most relevant in making these changes possible, especially in regards to women’s political participation?
In Bolivia and the region, from the 1970s up to the middle of the 1990s, conditions matured, putting transformations and a political agenda for women in view. The greatest expressions of these are the provisions that were incorporated in the new constitution and the fundamental laws that resulted.
With democratic progress as a backdrop, these achievements are a result of the favorable and convergent impact of driving forces applied in different areas. I refer, on the one hand, to the academic sector which contributed different lines of theoretical feminist thought, and on the other to the persistent role of the international community that managed to instill a set of demands in non-governmental agencies worldwide, which later spread to the government sector.
These driving forces came alive as a result of the activism done by women themselves, who – with a plural, tactical and strategic viewpoint – have succeeded in agreeing on and consistently influencing a political agenda of changes that evolved and progressed over the past 15 years. Over time, this initial agreement strengthened and expanded with the emergence, empowerment and commitment of female leaders from popular social organizations and indigenous campesinos who became protagonists in the process of political and economic reforms underway.
The case of Bolivia is surprising due to the remarkable advances made in electoral laws from 1997 to 2010, when (as I’ll explain in the following question) the parity principle in electing representatives is not only consolidated but also extended to other areas of government.
iKNOW Politics:The concept of parity in politics is still not very wide-ranging in Latin America. You have worked extensively on the topic. We would like you to explain to us why parity is fundamental and what the main differences are between parity and other affirmative action measures, such as quotas.
The importance of the parity principle and “equivalence” is rooted in acknowledging and repairing the historic injustice that excluded and marginalized women from the constitutional processes of the Bolivian state. Though women participated and were present in the battles for independence and other pivotal moments such as the National Revolution and the democratic conquest, they were largely absent at the time of reorganizing and re-legitimizing the Bolivian state. This exclusion of women in the formation of modern states, which has taken place since the French Revolution, betrays the principles of freedom, equality and fraternity, as well as the universality of citizen rights that began at the end of the 19th century.
Curiously, in Bolivia the process of legitimizing and adopting this fundamental principle has been continuously growing as a value shared by society. The strategy to achieve recognition for parity effectively used the same arguments of those who opposed the introduction of minimum quotas by insisting that it was unfair to have minimum quotas of 30% when women represented 50% of the population.
Conceptually, due to its scope and practical consequences in organizing and redistributing public power, parity is not comparable with an affirmative action policy based on minimum quotas for participation. These quotas are proposed as transitional measures to revert some kind of imbalance or inequality of opportunities in the exercise of various rights upheld by the legal system.
However, parity is conceived as a principle of permanent value to guarantee the full exercise of political and other rights acknowledged in the constitution and laws. In terms of electoral engineering, quotas face serious operational limitations for achieving the minimum results expected: the greatest difficulty is posed by the direct and proportional mixed electoral system. In the case of Bolivia, the implementation of minimum quotas and their results was minimized due to the impact of the electoral reform that occurred at the same time, which prioritized and introduced the direct election system for over half of the representatives in the Legislative Branch.
Between 1997 and 2002, the evaluation of the results of minimum quota implementation led us to the conviction that in order to accelerate women’s effective participation, we must aim for parity and alternation. Parity was legislated for the first time after the constitutional reform of February 2004 – at the same time the Indigenous Peoples and Citizen Groups Law was passed, upon opening the system of representation to political organizations that were not necessarily parties.
Parity is an achievement that was always on the horizon of pending transformations to incorporate in the agenda of political and electoral reforms envisioned by the women’s movement. However, even with parity, it is difficult to ensure that the electoral results reflect a 50% presence of women in the principal seats. Fifty percent occurs by counting the seats for alternate or substitute elected representatives, recognized by the legal system in Bolivia, which women have preferential access to in the system of single-member direct election.
iKNOW Politics: Continuing with the topic of parity, Bolivia is one of the few countries where it is legislated. To what extent has parity been adopted in the laws and what sanctions are established by the legal framework in the case of incompliance?
Since the Constituent Assembly was convened in 2006, the policy of parity gained territory and increasing social and political legitimacy. As a result, the new constitutional text and its organic laws were approved, which lay out the legal foundation for the Plurinational State with Autonomies, whose four branches or powers and levels of sub-national governments must be structured on the same principles of gender parity.
The following is a timeline of the legal implementation and its scope:
2006: Special Law Convening the Constituent Assembly, Law No. 3364 of March 6, 2006. This established that in the nomination of constituents, there must be alteration both in the single candidate (open) list and multi-candidate (closed) lists.
2009: National Constitution, approved by the Ratifying Constitutional Referendum on February 7, 2009. The chapter on political rights establishes that “All men and women citizens have the right to freely participate in the formation, exercise and supervision of political power, whether directly or through their representatives, individually or collectively.” The participation of men and women will be equal or occur under equal conditions. Regarding the election of members to the legislative body, it states, “equal participation among men and women must be guaranteed.”
2009: Transitional Electoral System Law No. 4021 of April 14, 2009. This indicates that citizen participation must be equal and take place under equal conditions among men and women. In its ninth article, it establishes that “lists of candidates for senator, principal and alternate deputies, department assembly members, department councilors, municipal councilors and municipal authorities must respect the principle of equal opportunity among men and women, such that the principal male candidate must be followed by principal woman candidate, an alternate woman candidate followed by an alternate male candidate, or vice versa. For one-member deputy offices, alternation will be applied for principal and alternate deputies in each constituency.”
2009: In accordance with the Constitution, since January 2010 gender equality has been used when forming the ministerial cabinet, the president being the person who designates the ministers.
2010: The structural laws of the Electoral and Judiciary Branches establish the equal composition of men and women. The principle of gender parity and equal opportunity among men and women in the exercise of their individual and collective rights is applied.
The Electoral Branch Law makes explicit reference to the electoral policy of parity and alternation, as follows: “This consists in the obligatory application of parity and alternation in the election and designation of all government authorities and representatives; in parties’ internal elections and candidates; and in the election, designation and nomination of authorities, candidacies and representatives of native indigenous peoples and nations through norms and procedures.
The Judicial Branch Law’s chapter on application and the pre-selection of applicants to the judicial branch’s highest institutions establishes that “The Plurinational Legislative Assembly, through a vote of two thirds of the members present, will carry out the pre-selection of the applicants, enabling up to fifty-four prequalified persons per national constituency for the Supreme Court of Justice; for the Agro-Environmental Court, up to twenty-eight prequalified candidates per national constituency. In both cases half of those prequalified must be women and the list of nominees must be submitted to the Plurinational Electoral Branch. In both cases, inter-culturality and gender equality will be respected.”
In all designations of members and judges, gender parity and plurality will be guaranteed.
The Framework Law of Autonomies and Decentralization establishes the legal framework corresponding to the structure of subnational governments of the State with Autonomies. It is coherent with the parity policy. It requires department statute systems and municipal autonomies’ organic charters to be adapted to the constitutional principles and the electoral system to facilitate the inclusion of the parity principle.
Subnational electoral systems have favored single name, direct election candidacies, which reduce women’s likelihood to access principal seats.
Some figures resulting from the implementation of parity in Bolivia include:
In the Legislative Body: Women hold 23% of the principal seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 44% of the seats in the Chamber of Senators. In the Department Assemblies, women hold 28% of the principal seats. To date, both legislative chambers are headed by women.
In the Electoral Branch: Parity is complied with according to the respective law. There is a majority participation of women electoral judges as presidents of the National Court and the nine department courts.
In the Judicial Branch: The parity principle was complied with. In the Council of the Magistrate, two of five office holders are women. In the Agro-Environmental Court, three of seven magistrates are women. In the Constitutional Court, four of seven principal magistrates are women. And in the Supreme Court of Justice, three of nine magistrates are women; parity is complied with in the corresponding seats for alternates.
In the Executive Branch: Since 2010, there have been times when women occupy 50% of the ministries in the cabinet. Lately, there has been a decrease in this percentage; however, the ministerial offices that women do hold are significant, such as that of communications, justice, planning, production, autonomies, transparence and agriculture.
iKNOW Politics: In May 2012, the Bolivian law on harassment and violence against women in politics was finally passed. What are the most important and positive aspects of this law? What challenges are there to achieving its implementation?
The Law against Political Harassment and Violence, Law No. 243, defines and sanctions acts of political harassment and violence against women as crimes and offenses. These include the following:
- Providing women candidates or authorities with inaccurate or imprecise information that leads to the inadequate exercise of their functions.
- Using gender stereotypes to impose tasks unrelated to their office.
- Preventing designated or elected principal or alternate female authorities from attending sessions where they will make important decisions.
- Disclosing personal and private information of designated or elected women or women candidates with the purpose of undermining their dignity and getting them to resign against their will.
- Pressuring or inducing women authorities to resign, or coercing them through force or intimidation to sign documents and/or back decisions against their will or political interest. Discriminating them for any reason such as pregnancy, language, dress, education level or appearance.
The Law against Political Harassment and Violence defines the following mechanisms for reporting and dealing with these cases. It establishes both an administrative and criminal course of action, depending on the gravity of the offense.
- In the administrative course of action, sanctions are laid out for minor, serious and very serious offenses. These range from a reprimand to salary reductions and the temporary suspension from office without pay for up to 30 days.
- In the criminal course of action, the sanction includes a two to five year prison term for harassment cases and three to eight years for cases of political violence (physical and psychological aggression).
Furthermore, this law establishes the responsibilities that public agencies, as well as social and political organizations, have in preventing and sanctioning political harassment and violence against women, which have been codified.
Significantly, after 11 years of progress and setbacks in dealing with this law, we have learned a lot of lessons that should be taken into account in the future. The first is related to the stalling effect that political polarization and personal positioning have on advancing the minimum political agenda for women. Another lesson refers to the redundant consulting that make the legislative process and the law itself overcooked products, wasting energy that could have been used to socialize the law and lobby to consolidate its regulation and effective implementation. For this reason, it is necessary to refocus advocacy strategies, placing emphasis on the weak links of public administration and the group of institutions involved in its fulfillment, especially in the judiciary.
iKNOW Politics: Good alliances and networks are very important in politics. iKNOW Politics is both a network and a resource for other networks. What kind of role have these alliances and networks had in your career?
Coalitions or alliances were, are and will be a key factor in deploying a successful advocacy strategy. Indeed, the first step was the collaboration of a group of women with different political backgrounds, including parliamentarians, members of political parties and affiliates of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Initially, the collaboration began in the Women’s Political Forum, thanks to the support and leadership of the women who then headed the Deputy Secretariat of Gender Affairs in the national and sub-national sectors.
In this network, a minimum legislative agenda was formulated, agreed on and monitored to address legal and political reforms that were not originally contemplated or given priority by the group of male political leaders and functionaries in the political system. The movement gained national presence and even became a united and vigorous force before, during and after the process of constitutional reforms that ended the virtuous cycle of this collaboration, which I consider successful but enervated. This partnership should be renewed to face new challenges posed in the legal system.
From the Bolivian experience and my own perspective, I can affirm that these alliances and networks are a prerequisite for generating successful strategies.
Given the importance of coordinated action and based on Bolivia’s experience, I summarize here some of the criteria that should be considered preconditions for the success of these concerted agendas in the framework of the alliances and networks that formulate them.
- Coalitions and alliances are not necessarily permanent, rather they get exhausted and cycles end. They must be renewed by taking on new challenges.
- Pluralism and collective ownership of agreements and achievements are important. These help avoid excessive attention to one person and appropriation by people or groups that ruin the climate of political relations within these coalitions and networks.
- Women’s advances had a core group of leaders that were in charge of planning the negotiation, developing the technical and political rationale for the proposals and their socialization, and designing creative and sustained collective actions during different stages of the process.
- In terms of scale, it was the action of an effective minority, composed of diverse women. The role that women parliamentarians and constituents played was key, in addition to the specialized support from NGO networks committed to this agenda. This includes the Women’s Coordinator, the Women’s Network for Equity and Equality (Amupei) and other already formed networks that have a track record and financial resources to support these actions.
- Political advocacy agendas should not be pompous or impossible to implement. They must be concrete, clear, procedure-friendly and accessible in order to be received by centers of political decision, which are sometimes reluctant to heed women’s demands for equality. Advances were owed to a pragmatic, realistic and not “maximalist” mentality that was adopted throughout the process.
It is essential to identify and have allies and connectors – both women and men – in different political blocs and the media.
iKNOW Politics: How would you like to be remembered? What kind of legacy would you like to leave, especially in regards to the promotion of women in politics?
I’d like to be remembered as part of a political generation of women who broke new ground and permanently marked the construction of democracy and it’s strengthening through the inclusion of women. As someone who, in this endeavor, made mistakes, had successes and, overall, acted in good faith, never falling into the authoritarian or dishonest practices that are so frequent in political culture.
Though the legislative legacy that I actively participated in is not always valued or noticed, I treasure some of the laws and processes promoted that took much creativity and dedication. This includes the laws for municipalities, national dialogue, political parties, school and institutional lunch, and the promotion of local food production. In all of these cases, the direct and indirect benefits were considered to improve the daily lives of women in urban and rural settings.
I also want to be remembered as the founder of the Gregoria Apaza Center for the Promotion of Women – which will celebrate its 30-year anniversary next year and enjoys local, national and international recognition – in addition to a promoter of the Women’s Coordinator and the Women’s Political Forum, which once had an important role in defining the objectives that have now been achieved.
Even though one cycle of political activism has ended, hopefully others will see that I continue in the endeavor to share experiences with the new generation of women leaders. I try to reinvent myself as a person and I am open to getting to know and understand new realities and challenges. This requires an effort to avoid nostalgically taking refuge in the past.
In the end, modesty aside, I would like to be remembered as someone who does not know the word retirement when it comes to taking on an active role for the just and democratic causes that continue to inspire us.