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Bolivia's women activists get support from Germany

August 24, 2022

Year after year, Bolivia witnesses an extremely high level of violence against women. Many victims turn into activists. German Development Minister Svenja Schulze wants to support them with feminist development policy.

Entwicklungsministerin Schulze in Bolivien
Image: Katharina Kroll

Lucrecia Huayhua sees herself as a fighter. She now fights for other women so that they do not have to suffer what she herself once went through.

Born in a village, she had 12 brothers and sisters and at the age of eight, she was brought to the Bolivian capital La Paz where she had to earn money as a housemaid. "I didn't understand what was happening to me at all at that time," she says. "I was always just told, 'You're not worth anything.' I was treated very, very badly. I had a hard life." It's still painful for her to talk about today.

Even as an adult woman, Huayhua underwent similar experiences and eventually she escaped her violent husband with her children. She says she was lucky to find the activists of the OMAK project, the "Organización de Mujeres Aymaras del Kollasuyo" (Organization of Aymara Women of Kollasuyo). It was a moment that fundamentally changed her life because she suddenly realized that she also had rights. "I understood for the first time that I was worth something. And that I was allowed to have dreams," she says.

Lucrecia Huayhua
Lucrecia Huayhua fights for womens' rightsImage: Katharina Kroll/DW

Three out of four women in Bolivia say they have experienced violence at the hands of their partners. Every year, 120 women are killed in the country. Relative to the population, that's one of the highest rates of femicide in Latin America.

"Women need more rights, and they must be enforced," said German Development Minister Svenja Schulze, speaking to the women of the OMAK project in El Alto, whom Germany is helping financially. "We want to focus more on feminist development policy. Because we are firmly convinced that societies become more humane when women have equal rights." That's why the minister is determined to make sure that women receive targeted support.

Violence is passed down through generations

"The goal of our work is for the women to break out of these violent relationships and become ambassadors against violence and for equality," says Eva Pevec, country coordinator at International Christian Service for Peace EIRENE, an OMAC partner. "They then draw on their own experience to help others." Lucrecia Huayhua is a living example of this: She received training and now fights for the rights of women affected by violence.

"There is a lot of machismo in Bolivia, which is seen as totally normal here," Pevec says. "Violence is part of life, seen as a normal human characteristic. And so, men are allowed to beat their wives. And parents beat their children." The violence is passed down from generation to generation and rarely questioned, she says.

Often, it is only when women join the project that they have the chance to talk about what happened to them. And about what they themselves have passed on to their children. This is often a very painful process, Pevec says. 

Indigenous women learn self-defense

Women cannot rely on the justice system

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. Around 80% of the population of working age does not have a regular job and thus no security. People live from hand to mouth, selling their small harvests at the markets, and working as street vendors or shoe shiners. Furthermore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolivia's economy suffered a massive slump and violence increased during the harsh lockdowns. "In addition, there is a lot of uncertainty in the country. People feel that many reforms urgently need to be addressed," says Jan Souverein, head of the Bolivian branch of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is affiliated with Svenja Schulze's center-left Social Democrat Party (SPD). "The judicial system, for example, is corrupt and in a pitiful state," he explains.

"Murderers and violent criminals can buy their way out. That's why many women don't report crimes against them," adds Pevec of EIRENE. In 2013, Bolivia introduced a law to protect women from all types of violence and the crime of femicide has even been included in the penal code and carries a maximum penalty. "But because of corruption, the law is not applied."

Climate protection, energy transition, women's rights

It had been a long time since a government minister from Germany had visited Bolivia. "I came here because Germany wants to show more presence in Latin America. Democracies need to strengthen each other," said Schulze.

The development minister also wants to strengthen cooperation on protecting the Amazon rainforest and on the energy transition to renewables. Germany is financing development cooperation projects in Bolivia to the tune of almost €300 million ($297 million). And its new feminist foreign and development policy concept will mean more support for projects such as that of the Aymara women.

"I want a world without violence," says Lucrecia Huayhua. "I will continue to fight for this with my heart, soul and mind all my life."

This article was originally written in German.

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