Maria Eugenia Rojas Valverde


February 12, 2013

Maria Eugenia Rojas Valverde

Expert on issues of democracy and women's rights, and an expert for iKNOW Politics, Bolivia

iKNOW Politics: In May of 2012 the Bolivian law relating to harassment and violence against women in politics was passed. Could you summarize the process leading to the enactment of this law, which actors played a key role in it and why?

The process was quite long. It lasted almost twelve years, eleven of which I was actively promoting the bill, together with social organizations, authorities at all levels, men and women human rights activists, public and private organizations, international cooperation agencies, etc., to pass this bill into force.  Initially called Act against Harassment and Political Violence Based on Gender. The hard work that we undertook, including research and analysis, ongoing advocacy, knowledge transfer, socialization and raising awareness, were key factors that contributed to the adoption of the Law against Harassment and Political Violence towards Women in May 2012.

The reported cases of harassment and political violence against women in the political sphere, particularly at the municipal level, revealed the urgent need for a legal instrument that would prevent and punish such activities. The systematization of reported cases served as input for a classification of the different forms of political violence and harassment faced by women in political functions and has been embodied in the regulations.

From the beginning, we developed a strategy to form alliances with other institutions interested in this problem, and with whom we jointly undertook advocacy work aimed at the adoption of this law.

The process began in 2000, at a hearing held by the Congress’ Committee on Popular Participation, where women councilors publicly denounced the harassment and political violence practiced against them in different municipalities around the country. In 2001, the first steps were made in affirmative action aimed at women, by designing the "First Draft Law against Harassment and Political Violence Based on Gender."

On the basis of this first project, in 2002, we started coordinating with various institutions working on gender issues, by conducting outreach workshops nationwide in order to systematize and disseminate the bill, a process that continued to 2004. The first outcome of this work was the presentation of a bill before the Senate of the National Congress in 2004. While the Senate did not approve the bill at the time, the importance of further work needed on the issue became clear. A second outcome was the formation of the Steering Committee for the Political Rights of Women, which supported the process in the following years by focusing on the enforceability of women's political rights.

During the 2005-2006 Legislature, the bill was back on the agenda to be taken before the National Congress, thanks to Congresswoman Elizabeth Salguero. The then Minister Casimira Rodriguez, and later Celima Torrico (former vice president of the Association of Councilors of Bolivia, ACOBOL) and the Chamber of Deputies called for the bill’s adoption with amendments, and, in order to  overcome these amendments, a new effort was created with all participating organizations, headed by the Steering Committee and ACOBOL. This process ended with a new consultation between women, authorities and leaders of social organizations of the nine departments of the country; the result was presented in 2008, as an initiative of the then Deputy Minister of Gender and Generational Affairs of the Ministry of Justice. The project was stalled again, however, due to changes in authority of the Vice Ministry as well as in the policy and legislative committees.

It is important to highlight the awareness and international focus given to this issue, and especially the attention given by other organizations in the associative municipal system of Latin American women. This work was supported from the start by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and, in 2004, while UNFPA was headed by Monica Yaksic, it collaborated in a sustainable and committed manner to have political violence recognized and highlighted internationally. Their work was complemented with that of another activist, Felicity Manson, of One World Action (OWA) from London, who helped with the advocacy work in Brussels, the center of the European Union, and become an example of lobbying beyond our borders.

Since March 2011, we resumed the coordination work with women parliamentarians, the Deputy Minister for Equal Opportunities and representatives of various women's organizations, NGOs and others working with issues of gender inequality. This work also had the support of the UN Programme on Promoting Change through Peace, which achieved a "Women's Alliance" formed by 15 national institutions with whom we defined a specific political agenda.

Within this process we created three working groups: i) General rules & regulations ii) Specific rules & regulations and iii) Economic, productive and financial regulations. This was done in order to contribute to the elaboration, modification and presentation of regulatory provisions that would enforce women’s rights under the mandates of the new Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and the Legislative Women’s Agenda. ACOBOL participated in the second working group with the understanding that a law against political violence based on gender must be approved as a special law. Then, in a meeting held in May 2011, with the support of several organizations, we decided to prioritize the Law against Harassment and Political Violence based on Gender among the three laws of the Group on Specific Rules & Regulations to be incorporated into the agenda of the Legislative Assembly for 2011-2012. Thereafter, based on the prioritization of the Act, it was then widespread and the modifications based on the new normative context of the Plurinational State were incorporated in different places, ministries, deputy ministries and other institutions.

Although the original intention was for the bill to be adopted in 2011, due to some internal differences among the interested organizations, it was decided to defer the processing to the 2012 agenda.

Finally, as a corollary to the whole process, which had been developing since 2000, we hit a climax in 2012 through an enabling environment and the media attention caused by the murder of Councilor Juana Quispe, which engendered a greater awareness of the scale of problem, and led to a decision, approval and promulgation of the Law No. 243 of May 28, 2012: "Law against Harassment and Political Violence against Women".

iKNOW Politics: What are the highlights and benefits of this law? What are the challenges for implementation?

A feature of this law is that it does not limit its application to women in elected office, but extends its reach to women appointed or in the exercise of a political function, which is a significant difference from the first bills. The Act classifies political harassment ("acts of pressure, persecution, harassment or threats") and political violence ("actions and physical, psychological or sexual"), differentiating between minor, serious and very serious and establishing the penalties for each of the cases.

In cases of harassment or political violence, the complaint may be filed by the victim, her family or any natural or legal person, verbally or in writing to the competent authorities. There are three types of complaints: administrative, criminal and constitutional. In the case of criminal proceedings, a breakthrough in this regulation has been the incorporation of new criminal offenses, which have been incorporated into the Bolivian Criminal Code. In this instance settlement is prohibited in order to avoid greater pressure on the victims of harassment and political violence.

At this time, the tasks that are pending and have been defined by the law itself are: regulation by the Plurinational Electoral Organ; the inclusion, in statutes and internal regulations of the political and social organizations, of the provisions relating to the prevention, attention and punishment of acts of harassment and political violence against women, with specific provisions to promote and ensure political participation under equal conditions for women and men, and finally, changing the public institutions’ internal regulations, regarding personnel and disciplinary actions, among others, as set forth in Article 8 of Law No. 243.

Another important task is to socialize the law in other areas of decision-making, different from those at local level. A good practice identified was the methodology in conducting departmental workshops, approaching the officers and Departmental Electoral Courts of Bolivia (TEDs), which are responsible for hearing, at the decentralized level, cases of harassment and political violence throughout the election cycle and, within their territorial jurisdiction. It is recommended that this practice be replicated with other public actors responsible for the care, reception, prevention, recording, monitoring, coordination, processing, solution, suspension, etc., of this type of cases, both within local governments and / or governorates, in their function as institutions in administering justice. This practice can also be applied in the municipalities themselves or with representatives of political parties or civic groups or governments, who in many cases are the main causes of such acts against women.

To complement this, it is important to generate informative, but educational and easy to read, material to be distributed in all the autonomous territorial entities, not only in local government, but in other political and administrative spaces corresponding to the different levels of the Plurinational State (ministries, governors, judiciary, etc.), so that women in public office in these institutions, internalize the content and scope of the new law and understand the reporting mechanisms and treatment of cases of harassment and political violence.

It is also important to design a communication strategy, that includes the formation of strategic alliances with different media (radio, television, press), with the aim of explaining the characteristics of harassment and political violence.

Finally, and building on synergies with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), in order to design the treatment protocol of cases we need to pursue that, in a mandatory fashion and prior to the elections, political parties, civic groups and indigenous peoples provide training (design training and civic education) for their male and female candidates on the contents and scope of the law, as well as preventive actions.

It is worth noting, among the positive aspects, the coordination work that has been accomplished during the entire process.  A determining factor was the formation of the Steering Committee for the Political Rights of Women, an agency that facilitated the work of raising awareness and enforcing rights, before the State and between the various institutional and social actors of the country. The quality of this committee laid in its ability to adjust the content of the bill and adapt its influencing strategy towards the new institutional political context the country had experienced in the last ten years; work that influenced the design and management of a regulation with highly sensitive content towards gender issues. Another positive aspect was the adequate reading of the external context taken by the committee, which allowed us to take advantage of the favorable situation developed at the political level to facilitate the adoption of the Law.

Regarding the possibility of replicating this experience in other contexts and scenarios, we gathered some feedback: in 2008, an agreement was signed between ACOBOL and the Association of Women in Municipalities of Ecuador (AMUME), in order to support the fight against harassment and political violence, opening the possibility for knowledge exchange all. There was also a dissemination of the Latin American Network of Elected Women Leaders in Local Government Associations (RedLamugol)’s experience since the creation of this network in 2008, which has also expressed interest in replicating our experience. This sentiment is shared by other networks, such as the Iberian-American Municipal Union (UIM), based in Granada, Spain.

iKNOW Politics: Did the Bolivian political context favor the adoption of the law against harassment and political violence against women (AVP), Law No. 243? And if so, how?

The truth is that the approval has not depended on whether a left or right-wing party was in power, but rather that women, committed to the cause and sensitive to the experience of other women involved in violence, whether political or otherwise, were fully committed to its approval.

Specifically, the legislative and electoral bodies directed by women (as part of the strategy and political situation in Bolivia) have favored the adoption of the Law AVP/243. Let me explain: the presence of Rebeca Delgado, followed by Betty Tejada, as presidents of the Chamber of Deputies, Gabriela Montaño as leader of the Senate and including key support from Wilma Velasco, as leader of the Electoral Supreme Court (TSE), and Marianela Paco, as designer of the Law in the commission of the Lower House (and even her replacement Lucio Marka), generated favorable conditions and promoted the reasons for the law, placing the issue of harassment and political violence at the center of the debate and the political agenda.

The political will and decision finally came about from the Constituent Assembly itself and its President, Silvia Lazarte. Admittedly, there is a consistency between the words and deeds enshrined in the Constitution of the State (CPE), when it decides that women should be at the head of the legislative chambers: this is a clear external demonstration of policy coherence within the policy of equality that bears fruit.

The transformation process in the country is definitely a slow process but it is leading to structural changes. A first step is the development of the legislative architecture, since it achieved in twelve years what had not yet been done: it established, in the Law No. 243, at least a general approach on the basis of the mechanisms, effective sanctions, coordination channels, centers in charge of giving attention and referral of the cases, etc., to be made explicit in the rules.

But above all things I emphasize the steadfastness, perseverance and tireless struggle of all women! Without their militancy none of this would have been possible.

iKNOW Politics: This legislation is very important to guarantee the rights of individuals. But the structural problems of society are often beyond the law. What is your perception on the subject of harassment and violence of women in politics as part of the structure of Bolivian society after the passage of the law?

Bolivia has the highest level of physical and sexual violence against women in Latin America, according to the Pan American Health Organization (2013 Report). 53% of Bolivian women confess to having been a victim of machista violence. In cases of harassment and political violence we can say, from our experience, that no woman has gone without being a victim of harassment and / or violence `at some point in her political career.

The ACOBOL technical staff, and different people involved directly or indirectly and who were interviewed, agreed, while reviewing the process that led to the passage of the law in order to identify the main difficulties faced, in stating that the approval of the law was hampered by the still patriarchal power present in Bolivian society. This situation was partly mitigated by a permanent awareness of the importance of the issue, by conducting meetings, workshops, work in municipalities, as well as the dissemination of information materials in different formats and by different means. Nonetheless, we are aware that there is still much work to be done.

Therefore, the adoption of the law is not enough, we now need the tools and mechanisms to make it fully effective and guarantee the rights of women. Otherwise, the affected population will not perceive a change in terms of prevention, care and resolution of their cases; the adoption of the law means nothing if it is not implemented. We have to insert regulations, resolutions, institutionalize and authorize new powers and authorities, among other decisive actions. In other words, eliminate the gap between mere equality "de jure" and "de facto".

In this regard, it is useful to note the international context and, more specifically, the Latin American context: in Costa Rica, a mayor had not given a female councilor functions consistent with the hierarchy of her position in the municipal structure. A judge then ordered him to remedy the situation within a month, warning him that he should not engage in further prejudicial conduct or he would be convicted of disobedience. The judge also ordered the municipality to pay costs and damages incurred.

This is to say, with a regional alliance we can agree on uphold jurisprudence on political and electoral violence.

iKNOW Politics: In your experience, what path should civil society organizations follow in other countries in the region in order to build awareness and put in the national debate the need to legislate on harassment and violence against women in politics?

Civil society must first strengthen the self-esteem and capacity of rural women (and poor urban women) so that they can participate in political processes, as well as strengthen their awareness of their rights and of the importance of gender issues in politics. At a later stage, they will need to promote the advocacy capacity of women so that they, themselves, can actively promote attitude changes among both male and female elected representatives and the political parties, in addition to strengthening the "political tools" of women (public speaking, financial management, negotiation skills, etc.). The time around the election cycles is crucial because they are the most appropriate moments to present women’s agendas among the competing parties, while at the same time raising awareness in general of the political processes and electoral politics among the female population.

Parallel to these actions, there are certain roles that governments can also take up with the same goal, such as enforce a legislation and support policies that strengthen gender equality, or institute a budget specifically for the promotion of women's political activity. On a more practical or logistical level, government can contribute by ensuring infrastructure (meeting venues) or means of communication (roads, transportation in general) that meet the practical needs of women. Finally, we can even use bilateral and multilateral cooperation to prioritize the strengthening programs geared towards women's networks and organizations.