Can Bolivia’s new measures counteract gender violence?

Bolivia has one of the highest rates of gender violence, with nine in 10 women experiencing it in their lifetime.

A woman holds a double image showing her late daughter, a victim of a violent crime, in La Paz, Bolivia [Juan Karita/AP]

Brisa de Angulo was raped repeatedly as a teenager by an adult member of her own family. When she finally mastered the courage to seek help and report the sexual assault, she said her family tried to silence her.

“I was intimidated and blamed by the authorities, my community, and my extended family,” she recalled. “My extended family tried to silence me in order to maintain the prestige of the family and to prevent other instances of incestuous sexual violence from coming to light,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bolivia has the highest rate of violence carried out by partners against women in Latin America.

According to the UN, 35 percent of women are victims of violence at some point in their lives globally. “This means more than one billion women worldwide are affected by violence,” Dubravka Simonovic, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, explained to Al Jazeera.

In Bolivia, however, the number is a staggering 90 percent.

The Bolivian government has been implementing progressive measures to address violence against women.

In 2013, the country introduced a harsher sentencing framework in cases involving violence against women, increasing the incarceration period for a felon convicted of femicide to 30 years. 

Currently, the Justice Minister Virginia Velasco and the Magistrate Council are introducing a new method for fighting violence against women: to apply for public office, Bolivians now must produce a document stating that they have no criminal record of gender violence, or violence against a family member.

This new method has sparked hope among those working with victims of sexual violence. “The new law sends a signal that we hope will continue to change attitudes in terms of how women in Bolivia are valued …” said Tanya Sukhija, the sexual violence programme officer at the NGO Equality Now.

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The dangers of coming forward

De Angulo is one of the seven out of 10 women (PDF) in Bolivia who are victims of sexual abuse.

The difficulties she has faced in getting justice occur across the globe, said Simonovic.

“Globally, the phenomenon of underreporting cases of violence, in particular domestic violence, is widespread. In the majority of countries with available data, less than 40 percent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort,” Simonovic explained.

“Among women who do, most look to family and friends and very few look to formal institutions and mechanisms such as police and health services,” because coming forward can be a stressful and life-threatening event for the victim. 

“During my pursuit of justice, my house was stoned and set on fire twice. My life was threatened many times during the trial process,” de Angulo said.

Simonovic explained that women face numerous barriers when seeking help, including “the lack of services; fear of reprisals by the offender as well as family and community members; reluctance due to shame or embarrassment; the potential impact on women’s custody of children; fear of reliving the experience of violence when testifying before court; the feeling that the police could do nothing to help; and wanting to keep the incident private.”

De Angulo recalled how these barriers affected her own case.

“The prosecutor threatened to jail me if she found any inconsistencies in my story,” De Angulo said. “She said that even if my story was true, I should remain silent because it would be cruel and selfish to disclose and ruin my aggressor’s life by sending him to jail for seven years.”

She remembers how, as an adolescent girl standing in court, she was deeply hurt by this attitude. “‘He will be in jail for seven years, but I will suffer the consequences of his actions for the rest of my life,”‘ she had responded to the prosecutor.

De Angulo’s case is currently before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), although she filed it in 2012. Hers is one of thousands of cases involving violence against women in Bolivia.

According to Brendan Martin from Equality Now, the Commission has a serious backlog. “Last we heard, they were still dealing with cases from the early 2000s,” Martin said.

Effectiveness of laws

Ten women are killed every month in Bolivia – one woman every three days. 

In October 2015, the Attorney General’s Office registered 32,999 cases of domestic violence against women.

Other numbers suggest that the problem is even bigger. The World Health Organization reported that 53 percent of Bolivian women have been affected by some form of domestic violence. According to the Ministry for Equal Rights in Bolivia, nine out of 10 Bolivian women are victims of violence.

For Simonovic, the law constitutes an important step towards preventing gender violence. “Violence against women is a human rights violation in itself and a form of sex and gender-based discrimination which precludes the possibility for women to enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” she said.

Jennifer McCleary-Sills, director of Gender, Violence and Rights for the International Center for Research on Women, however, believes that the new policy can work in theory, but that it requires commitment and enforcement in order to be successful. Otherwise, she said, “it’s little more than just words on paper”.

Demonstration marking International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in Bolivia [Juan Karita/AP]

Harsher sentences will work, McCleary-Sills thinks. “But this assumes that the penalties go beyond paper and are actually applied in real cases of violence.”

Nevertheless, these laws could make Bolivia an example to follow for other countries.

“It has the potential to establish an important starting point for many countries, which should consider the adoption of similar measures,” Simonovic said.

Rosa Jalka de Alpi, the executive general at the Bolivian human rights organisation CDIMA, agrees, and explained to Al Jazeera how the new regulations on holding public office are “a breakthrough in the state’s efforts to combat violence against women”.

But she said the law “doesn’t go far enough, as most of the population is employed in the informal sector or other occupations, where such laws do not exist, and as such perpetrators in these sectors are not impacted by this law”.

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While the law may deter some potential perpetrators, the solution, de Alpi said, is in education, in identifying violence, in promoting women’s rights, and in knowing what services and institutions are available.

“In the home, children need to be raised without violence, encouraged to have high self-esteem. Sexist attitudes must be rejected – especially the prevailing patriarchal culture. Women themselves need to help break the cycle of violence,” de Alpi said.

For de Angulo, the most important thing is that victims should be taken seriously. 

“Victims receive tremendous pressure from society to remain silent, and we as advocates must seek to remove any obstacles that make breaking this silence more difficult.”

De Angulo and thousands of women in Bolivia have a long struggle ahead of them. Laws and agreements alone will not solve the problem.

“Though Bolivia has many good laws in place and has signed numerous human rights treaties, it’s culture lags far behind its legal framework,” de Angulo said. It is a culture that takes a woman’s life every three days.

Source: Al Jazeera