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In the South American country Bolivia, violent crimes against young women have risen dramatically. Between 2008 and 2009, cases of violence by boyfriends, husbands, and fathers, went up by 10% in the capital, La Paz, alone. Though random attacks against women and sex workers do occur, there is no way to know whether they too have been on the rise. Almost none of these cases have — or are likely — to face justice. But a new law that may pass by the end of 2010, would give a sentence of up to 30 years’ prison for the murder of women — the same sentence given for the murder of men. It’s seen as a revolutionary first step in combating the rising rates of violence, and as one way of gathering data and combating misogyny in this traditional South American country. Ruxandra Guidi has more from La Paz.
(sound of Branezs office)
GUIDI: Patricia Brañez is a stoic and straight-talking sociologist who focuses on women in a country largely dominated by men. She’s holding a cigarette with one hand, and with the other, leafing through a binder full of numbers and newspaper headlines. She works for the Centro de Informacion y Desarrollo de la Mujer, or CIDEM, Bolivia’s largest women’s rights organization. CIDEM is the only institution to be monitoring cases of femicide, and Brañez says those numbers have been going up steadily since 2004, year after year.
Banez: We’ve determined that in 2009, there were 98 femicidios in our country — and this is only by looking at press clips. We know that the numbers must be much higher — we’re estimating around 160. Most of these cases haven’t been registered by any government institutions; so to us, this clearly means that the Bolivian state and society have come to accept violence against women as the norm.”
GUIDI: But why have the numbers gone up so much in the last year? Brañez doesn’t have the answer. All she knows is that the data is alarming, and that there are plenty of cases in La Paz and the neighboring slum-city of El Alto that can illustrate this.
(sound of door)
Gladys Apaza’s home is in the poor working-class neighborhood of Villa Victoria. A month ago, her father came from work and found the 20 year-old’s body — her little nephew, Fernando, laying dead next to her with another gunshot wound. Her ex-boyfriend Gary, a military officer, admitted to his family that he killed Gladys. But then he fled, and now neither his parents nor the military will reveal his whereabouts. Viviana Apaza is Gladys’ mother, who’s been visibly distraught by the crime since it happened.
Apaza: “I was selling toys at my stand downtown, when I realized that I had 8 missed calls on my cell phone… I answered the last time and my husband said to me — Gladys is dead, Nilo is dead. And I almost died myself. That instant, I left everything and came home. When I got here, our home was full of police officers, journalists, photographers — they told me to go upstairs and didn’t even let me see my kids.”
GUIDI: Viviana Apaza says she can now see the warnings she missed. Gladys had broken up with Gary in January, but he refused to accept it. He’d become extremely possessive and jealous, and repeatedly asked her to hide this from others. He flaunted his military background, and told Gladys he couldn’t marry a girl like her, from a poor family.
Aside from playing these painful scenes over and over in her head, for the last month, Viviana has been consumed by the fact that the family can’t afford a lawyer. On the other hand, Gary’s family has four.
Apaza: “How could it be that 4 lawyers defend a criminal, and we don’t even have one? I am a poor, simple, hard-working woman, and my daughter was too. I once told Gary, ‘There are women that will line up to be with you, because you have a swagger, and a uniform; you’ll even find women that are much better off with my daughter. So why do you insist on being with her?'”
GUIDI: Not all cases of violence against young women are motivated by jealousy and possession, but Gladys’ case is certainly one of many others that have come to the attention of the Bolivian police.
Alvarez: “Fortunately, the Bolivian police forces are doing everything in our power to investigate crimes, no matter whether the victims are rich or poor, powerful or not.”
GUIDI: Colonel Rosalio Alvarez Claros is the chief of the crimes division. Faced with the sharp rise in violent crimes against women, he says machismo must be to blame. But Alvarez can’t explain why the military isn’t helping the police in solving Gladys’ murder.
Alvarez: “We are doing the investigations but haven’t had much success. We’ve contacted the military command to see whether Gary is still active, or his whereabouts — but they won’t comply. Reporter: What have they told you? Alvarez: They haven’t acknowledged our requests, so we don’t know. Reporter: The family fears that the military is covering up the murder. Alvarez: We think it’s pretty obvious that this is what’s going on…”
GUIDI: The leadership of the Bolivian military is so powerful, that no one can face up to them — not even the Ministry of Justice. But for the last six months, the institution has tried to address this kind of impunity by introducing a new law. It’s called the “Ley de Feminicidio” — and it marks the first time in the history of Bolivia that gender crimes would be prosecutable by up to a 30-year sentence. Irma Campos is in the newly-created gender department, and she says she hopes the new law will change Bolivian society.
Campos: “Typically, we’ve criminalized homicide or murder, but this definition of femicide is new in our country because we wouldn’t give that much importance to the killing of women. So we’re just starting to give it the focus it needs by giving it a name — now when people hear “femicide” — they’re starting to ask ‘femicide, what’s that?'”
GUIDI: Most Bolivians seem puzzled by the term “feminicidio” and the eminent law, especially since no outreach programs have been designed to inform the public about the need for this law, nor its aim. Meanwhile, there are only three women’s resource and legal centers in La Paz and El Alto with more cases of violence than they can handle. Valentina is among those cases — a poor woman in her mid thirties with a violent husband who refuses to grant her a divorce. She’s come to this women’s center to explore the possibility of a lawsuit — the only way out of her abusive marriage. Valentina says she’s skeptical that a feminicidio law will do much to reduce society’s denial of gender violence.
Valentina: “Can you imagine how violent this man is that my life has been at risk many, many times — he could have killed me! And the police wouldn’t do anything… What’s more, I’m not afraid of him anymore, I know how to defend myself. But now I’m onto the third lawsuit and have no chances to win, so what do I have to do now, pay the judge? You know, laws are beautiful, but here in Bolivia, they are not applied, and they don’t make a difference…”
GUIDI: But one bright light in all this is that the rising violence has galvanized the Bolivian press around the issue. The term femicide may be controversial, but most members or parliament seem to feel something needs to be done, so the law is almost sure to pass.
For Making Contact, I’m Ruxandra Guidi, El Alto, Bolivia.