The importance of considering patriarchal structure and cultural practices and strengthening judiciary systems
Over the last two decades, most of the countries of the world have witnessed an increase in the presence of women in elected office. The action of global and grassroots campaigns and the adoption of gender quotas, among others, have positioned women in the decision-making organs, constituting the 24.9% in the Lower Houses globally. In the case of Latin America, the number of women in Single or Lower Houses represents the 31.1%, 5% more than the global average. Even if these strategies have opened the playing field to women, they have also led to backlashes and resistances to their full integration.
In the 1980´s with the Latin American countries´ transition to, and consolidation of democracies, social movements reappeared and women´s organizations placed equality between women and men in the political agendas of governments and political actors in the region. Over the years, women that were part of these organizations moved on to formal politics demanding their space in leadership positions. Their impulse, together with the influence of the Beijing Conference (1995) led to the implementation of quota laws in the formation of Lower and Upper Houses in most Latin American countries between 1996 and 2000.
Particularly, the Latin American country with more women in elected positions is Bolivia. The Plurinational State of Bolivia ranked third in women´s representation in the world´s parliaments in 2020. 53.1% of the representatives of the Lower House and 47.2% of the members of the Upper House are women. In 1997, a quota of 30% was established for the Plurinational Legislative Assembly and the Municipal Legislative Organs, and 25% for the Senate. In 2010, with the approval of the Constitution, parity was established in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, guaranteeing that 50% of the members of the Upper and Lower Houses were women.
These reforms were promoted by feminist and women´s movements in the country. These various organizations denounced in the 2000 that in spite of the reforms, women candidates, member of parliaments and councilwomen were being assaulted insulted, threatened, deprived of the resources to develop their functions, pressured to resign from their positions against their will, and have lost their lives for being women in decision-making positions.
The Association of Councilwomen of Bolivia (Acobol) started documenting these resistances and pushing for the generation of legislation that could provide legal protection to the victims of what they named for the first time as harassment and violence against women in politics. Finally, in 2012 Law Nº 243 Against Harassment and Violence against Women in Politics was sanctioned the 28th of May and Bolivia became the first country in Latin America in typifying harassment and violence against women in politics.
The adoption of the Law served as an inspiration for activists and parliamentarians in countries as Peru, Costa Rica, or Mexico, who pushed for the adoption of similar statutory reforms. Moreover, it drawn attention to the increasing cases of harassment and violence against women in politics in Latin America and served as a framework for civil society mobilization and advocacy. Nevertheless, since the Law was passed in 2012, the number of cases in the country continue increasing: Acobol registered 127 complains in 2018, 62 more than in 2016, when 65 cases were registered.
This leads to an immanent question: Why the Bolivian Law against Harassment and Violence against Women in Politics fails to protect victims of violence against women in politics in Bolivia? This article develops two possible explanations in the text thereafter:
On the one hand, sanctioning a law against violence against women in politics is not enough to contain these attacks, because they are driven by structural and cultural forces. Violence against women in politics is originated in structural violence and legitimated through cultural violence. The structural roots of VAWP derive from the idea that men´s bodies should occupy the public sphere while women are associated with the private spaces. This conception fosters opposition to women in decision-making positions. Moreover, cultural norms create a double standard regarding violence against women in politics. Rape myths, sexist jokes and sexual objectification, among others are used to change the moral color of attacks against women in elected positions making them right, or at least acceptable.
On the other hand, the climate of impunity and the weak judiciary system impedes the enforcement of the Law Nº 243 in Bolivia. The Latin American country is ranked 127 out of 128 countries on criminal justice in 2020 in the Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project, due to its weak implementation and enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, of the hundreds of incidents reported by women politicians, only one resulted in a conviction and the reinstatement of a councilwoman, who was obliged to resign after a daylong kidnapping in 2016. This context of impunity also affects the implementation of statutory prohibitions against violence against women and domestic violence. Cases of violence against women are under reported and police and prosecutors do not pay the attention they should to the complaints. Moreover, impunity is also extended to the workplace, due to the lack of specialized statutes typifying gender and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Considering these explanations, this article proposes two complementary responses to violence against women in the country:
Firstly, violence against women in politics requires of the implementation of multiple strategies simultaneously to transform the patriarchal structure and cultural practices. Generation of networks for documenting, addressing and monitoring the problem, integration of gender concerns in electoral observation missions, or the establishment of incentives for parties to include more women in their lists are some of the possible measures that could complement the legislation.
Secondly, for these strategies to be effective, larger problems of impunity, weak judiciary systems and gender inequality should be addressed. Policy makers should undertake a profound work to rebuild the criminal justice systems and reestablish the rule of law. Some potential reforms include assigning special prosecutors for cases of violence against women in which physical assault and psychological harassment has been committed; and offering special trainings for officers in charge of cases of violence against women so that they can identify victims of violence against women. Simultaneously, special protections and sanctions should be established for cases of harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
As Catherine MacKinnon expresses, “laws have the power of legitimizing injuries as injuries in order to delegitimize our victimization by them”. However, they need to be complemented with other strategies in order to end with violence against women in politics; a form of violence against women that affects 81.1% of women representatives globally.
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About the author:
Claudia Icaran is from the Basque Country in Spain, but she has spent the last years between India, Panama and the UK. She holds a BA in International Relations and a MA in Governance, Development and Public Policy. She is passionate about gender issues and development. She has worked in different International Organizations and NGOS specialized in women empowerment and universal healthcare provision. Now she is back home, where she is working for the City Council´s programs to empower migrant women.