“…but on the other hand, there is also a challenge, not only in Bolivia but in the region, for us feminists that have been in this fight for a long time to pass the torch to young women and to work jointly with them and strengthen their leadership. We have to give room for the new generations and I think that this is a challenge. This is why I always say first the young women and second us.” – Elizabeth Salguero
iKNOW Politics: I would like to start by asking about your beginning in politics and for a brief summary of your career. How has being a woman influenced this process?
I have a degree in social communications and a master’s in regional planning. I began around 1990, taking on the fight for women’s rights, in particular for women in indigenous communities. I first worked with women’s organizations as a national coordinator in the Fourth World Conference on Women [Beijing 1995]. It was a very fulfilling experience; for the first time women were reflecting together on the issues proposed during the Platform of Action for Women [Beijing]. In Bolivia it was the first time that the work of indigenous, campesina [rural farming] and native women was recognized. The country report was written over a series of encounters and workshops held by the indigenous, campesina and native women’s organizations. There we saw that it would be a challenge to incorporate intercultural respect into our work as well as anti-violence and discrimination.
Afterward I was the national coordinator for the Bolivian women’s organization Articulación de Mujeres por la Equidad e Igualdad [AMUPEI], the body established to follow up the Beijing Conference. We made it a work platform to influence the three state powers — legislative, executive and judicial — in order to implement the World Plan of Action for Women. Later I returned to work in media companies, with international cooperation agencies and as a consultant in issues related to women. In the year 2005, I was invited to be a deputy candidate for the MAS party [Movement Toward Socialism, party of current president Evo Morales]. For me it was an honor and recognition. It was the challenge that the women’s organizations were looking for, both at a personal and group level. We would no longer try to make an impact from the outside, but rather fight for women’s rights from within the state. I was greatly and pleasantly surprised. It was not a personal achievement, but rather collective one. I entered into national Parliament thanks to the support of women’s movements. In Parliament, I participated as a member of the International Relations Committee and was later named president of the Bolivian Inter-Parliamentary Union.
I have also been vice president of the Socio-Political Commission and am currently president of the Human Rights Commission. Despite great advances in the area of women’s rights around the world and in my country, I cannot deny that it is still difficult for us women to exercise our rights in day-to-day life. In Bolivia, we have a very advanced legal framework, especially with the New Bolivian Political Constitution (2009). But this is hindered by a machista and patriarchal society. It is difficult for us women to get positions of real power, to be recognized as leaders and to have equal opportunities to enter certain offices of power. For example, during this term, I am the only woman in Parliament to be president of a commission. The recognition that we have obtained up to now is the consequence of very hard work within these structures with the strong collective support of women.
iKNOW Politics: MAS has won successive elections, most recently earning more than 60 percent of votes. Considering the quick rise of MAS, what role has female political leadership played in this process?
Since the beginning, the active and organic participation of the Federación de Mujeres Campesinas de Bolivia Bartolina Sisa has been very important. This Federation is one of the social movements that forms part of MAS and defines itself as a “political instrument” of these movements. The presence of indigenous, campesina and native women has been manifest in various movements. Silvia Lazarte was president of the Constituent Assembly; Leonilda Zurita is part of the national direction of MAS; Nemesia Achacollo and Sabina Orellana are members of Parliament; other indigenous women such as Celina Torrico, Casimira Rodríguez and Celinda Sosa have been ministers. We have had various women in the cabinet. Unfortunately we currently only have two ministers.
We hope that with the New Constitution we will advance toward equality. In fact, there are indigenous, campesina and native women in different levels of Evo Morales’ administration, but participation is still low. This has not recently begun with the MAS party, but it has made a lot of headway. The first indigenous parliamentary deputy was Remedios Loza, a woman from La Paz who used typical indigenous dress and belonged to the Party Conscience party [CONDEPA]. We still have a long way to go, but we have to recognize that despite the patriarchal vision reflected in political parties and different parts of Bolivian society, there are also people who are very supportive and very committed to women’s rights, opening doors for us and supporting us in promoting our causes and accessing positions of power. What happens is that we must sometimes work double or triple the amount of men in order to obtain the same thing.
iKNOW Politics: In your opinion, what are the primary contributions of the New Bolivian Constitution to women and their participation in politics?
In first place, the New Political Constitution uses non-sexist language. In second place, women’s rights are mainstreamed into all, absolutely all of the chapters in the New Constitution. There is no “particular regime” of women, but rather the focus is universal in all issues. Regarding women’s participation in politics, article 11 affirms that Bolivia adopts a democratic, participatory, representative and communal form of government, with equal conditions among men and women. For the next elections [December 2009], we have the big challenge of how to guarantee this, as well as article 147 that states that the election of assembly members will guarantee equal participation of men and women.
iKNOW Politics: The feminine blocs in Parliament have had a lot of success in different countries. In Bolivia, there is the Bolivian Union of Parliamentary Women (UMPABOL). What is its role and how is it currently functioning?
Well, I would like to be more self-critical on this. It would have been a very interesting space to work on women’s issues with different political parties in order to go beyond our differences and propose joint demands. Unfortunately this has not been possible. The UMPABOL has weakened over time and has not managed to have much of an impact on national Parliament. I believe that there has been a lack of leadership which has inhibited the unity necessary in overcoming our differences and working for the common cause of women. Neither has this space been recognized by women from different political parties. It is important to mention, however, that other areas in civil society have opened — for example, a committee to promote the legislative agenda of women. This committee has systematized all the laws presented by women, has identified the laws being written and currently operates as a coordination body that actively works to ensure these laws’ viability. All of this is based on a solid alliance between women Parliament members and women’s organizations.
iKNOW Politics: What suggestion would you give to youths that are involved or want to get involved in politics, but who see politics as inaccessible?
Well I think that there are two sides to it, no? For example, in Bolivia the New Constitution has opened the opportunity for young men and women to become members of Parliament in the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly beginning at age eighteen. It is very important that youths take advantage of this opportunity, identify and strengthen their leadership in order to be candidates and later members of Parliament. But on the other hand, there is also a challenge, not only in Bolivia but in the region, for us feminists that have been in this fight for a long time to pass the torch to young women and to work jointly with them and strengthen their leadership. We have to give room for the new generations and I think that this is a challenge. This is why I always say first the young women and second us.
iKNOW Politics: What role have networks played in your political career? Do you believe that they are important in advancing women’s participation and leadership in politics?
Of course, networks are very important. They serve to exchange experiences, strengthen impacts at the regional level and help local struggles to acquire new dimensions. We learn from other women in the network and they strengthen us with their presence and experiences. It is fundamental to have networks where we not only share experiences, but also documents, ideas and projects that are always strengthening our work at the local level.
iKNOW Politics: One last question. How would you like to be remembered? What are the most important achievements that you have made for women’s progress here in Bolivia?
I think that the most important thing would be for the achievements made with the New Constitution to be reaffirmed in the joint work of women. It is important to stress and reinforce collective work. Struggles are not only personal; results are the product of collective work. As I said before, recognition of women leadership is fundamental, but everything rests on a collective backing. This is what I would like to leave as the fruit of my work. To overcome what everyone always says — that women are their own worst enemies. In second place, I would like for strong social control, vigilance and enforceability to be developed in Bolivia by the women’s organizations in civil society.
It is not enough for our rights to be recognized by the Constitution, we have to exercise and guarantee them. Lastly, it is not enough to increase the number of women that access areas of power, we must guarantee the quality of representation. In that, I refer to women being conscientious in areas of gender, not only in relation to women’s rights, but also other groups, such as those with different sexual orientations. Their rights are also articulated in the Constitution, but they must be reinforced and guaranteed. We have seen a lot of women enter into positions of power and then forget about women. This goes back to the idea of enforceability. Women’s organizations must be watchful that these women really represent the rights of others when they arrive to power.