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Women and Bolivia's New Constitution

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Bolivian women at a CCIMCA worshopFor more than 25 years, Bolivian women have been playing games on the altiplano at 13,000 feet above sea level. But these games are serious. Developed by IAF grantee Centro de Capacitació n Integral de la Mujer Campesina (CCIMCA) to deal with literacy, ethnic identity, civics and political economy, they were designed to stimulate critical thinking that would lead to positive change in rural communities.

CCIMCA was founded in 1982 by Evelyn Barrón and Rita Murillo, both social workers determined to pursue development on their own terms in the department of Oruro. After some initial setbacks, CCIMCA found its footing, inspired by the pioneering Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and the concepts he detailed in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Key to their success were the drawings of Germán Treviño, an artist on staff. From them CCIMCA devised exercises, including the games, that brought to life courses in health, nutrition, horticulture, leadership and contemporary political issues and helped women in more than 70 communities articulate their hardships and how to address them.

CCIMCA's workshops prompted women to ask questions, analyze problems and propose solutions-good preparation for moving into local leadership positions and running for public office. Several former trainees became the first indigenous women elected to Bolivia's congress. CCIMCA has shared its successful approach with the Bolivian offices of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the European Union and Caritas. It was featured along with the Grameen Bank and other stellar grassroots organizations in Local Heroes, Global Change, an award-winning series that has been televised in Europe, Japan and the United States since its release in 1990. In celebration of the IAF's 40th anniversary, Kevin Healy updates us on CCIMCA and its methods and accomplishments that were themselves cause for celebration when he first wrote about them in Grassroots Development 1991 on the occasion of IAF's 20th anniversary.

For first half of the first decade of the 21st century, Bolivia was swept up in a frenzy of political and social mobilization. Its indigenous majority in particular was clamoring for social justice, full citizenship and state control over the country's abundant natural resources. Mobilization threw into political relief Bolivia's profound inequalities-the worst in Latin America-and the failure of the neoliberal economic model. The relentless barrage of protests, although marred by several episodes of violence, reached a crescendo in 2005 with the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, and a victory for his upstart party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).

For many poor indigenous Bolivians, this outcome signaled a new threshold after 500 years of systematic exclusion from public life. Diverse social movements representing a broad swath of the population-male and female, rural and urban, middle-class and poor-coalesced to demand a new constitution that the Bolivian people would draft. These forces pushed Morales to campaign on this issue, and he embraced it. As president, he made clear his intent to make a new constitution the cornerstone of his administration's commitment to sweeping change. Civil society institutions were also bubbling over with initiatives and ideas to get the drafting process rolling. The expectation was that a new constitution would embrace a spectrum of rights heretofore denied to many citizens and would help Bolivia move toward social justice and broader political participation.

CCIMCA, which since l999 had moved its women's workshops from the countryside into the city of Oruro, plunged into this process. Its lively and colorful training in civic education conducted in an unpretentious facility in the center of Oruro engaged hundreds of the women eking out a living in the informal sector. Many belonged to juntas vecinales, or neighborhood associations, usually male-dominated, in Oruro's three major barrios. CCIMCA would now turn its focus toward their engagement in articulating their demands and working for their incorporation in the new constitution.

Cartoon about Bolivia's constitutionAs it had for years, CCIMCA would deploy Germán Treviño's drawings to stimulate reflection and analysis on the condition of women and the misuse of power. The illustrations depicted a wide range of problems that women faced and ways to ameliorate and even transform them. Treviño has always been careful to draw the images in consultation with the compañeras, often redoing them to everyone's satisfaction. By putting together the narrative expressed by each series, women in Oruro's villages recognized episodes from their own lives and began discussing them freely and authoritatively.

CCIMCA's short-term goal was to enable marginalized women to move into positions on boards providing oversight of male-dominated city councils and the above-referenced juntas vecinales-an approach that faced huge challenges in a patriarchal culture resistant to change. To strengthen its hand, CCIMCA began using the Foro Ciudadano Municipal, a public place to air grievances and propose reforms, which brought together juntas vecinales. CCIMCA also organized a local chapter of AMPUIE, a women's Bolivian advocacy network. This infused the Foro with vitality and transformed it into a dynamic platform for debate and mobilization around pressing social issues. The women learned to shape their issues to win public support and persuade municipal authorities. Marches followed as well as campaigns to raise awareness of women's rights and educate the public on domestic and other violence directed against women. CCIMCA and AMPUIE's effectiveness was demonstrated in a new tilt in municipal budgets toward plans for two new hospitals, one specializing in maternal and child services, the first of its kind in Oruro. Funds were also allocated to other notable firsts: a volleyball league for girls, support for children with disabilities and health programs targeting cervical cancer. The debate in AMPUIE turned to penal reform and led to the imposition of more stringent sentences for those found guilty of crimes involving domestic violence.

The process of grassroots constitution-making got underway with the passage of a law convoking a constitutional assembly in 2003, and it formally ended with a nationwide referendum in early 2009. Women trained in CCIMCA's workshops and in the revitalized Foro were in the streets early on in massive marches for the enshrinement of their rights and those of others. From the outset, CCIMCA navigated a steady bottom-up course enabling women to participate in focused discussions while channeling their ideas and aspirations into an agenda on women's rights that was spreading across Bolivia. In addition to Treviño's vivid illustrations, its immersion workshops on constitutional reform relied on an examination of the actual constitution then in force. "It was obvious that the compañeras had never held a copy of the constitution in their hands, not even to flip through its pages," said Natividad Salas, a CCIMCA trainer. She added that the exercise made the women aware of the old constitution's strengths as well as of its silence on women's rights. Why, they asked, is drafting such a fundamental document the privileged province of lawyers and politicians? Why is it beyond the control of common folk like themselves? This was a good place to start formulating what would go into a new constitution in the next set of workshops.

By popular demand, CCIMCA extended its reach to include two barrios not previously in its program and several rural zones where it had trained women in the 1980s and 1990s. Five workshops on women's issues became the centerpiece of its training on the function of a constitution. Special forums enabled the women to grill candidates of different political stripes running for election as delegates to the constitutional assembly. Although the full slate appeared at the Foro for only an afternoon, CCIMCA did its best to sensitize all candidates to basic inequalities, opportunities for reform and the minimum nonnegotiable set of principles the organization had developed. Out of 35 candidates appearing in Oruro, 20 were elected, among them five women, three of whom were graduates of CCIMCA's five-workshop program. Women made up 33 percent of the entire constitutional assembly and by law 27.7 percent of the delegate slots were filled by indigenous Bolivians, making for a historically diverse body.

The 16-month constitutional assembly unfolded in a sometimes tortuous manner with serious conflicts erupting in response to efforts to sabotage the proceedings. For security reasons, the assembly was moved from Sucre, Bolivia's constitutional capital, to Oruro for the final vote. As members of Coordinadora de la Mujer, another national network, CCIMCA and AMPUIE monitored deliberations on gender issues. The monitors were especially attentive to the MAS party's delegates from Oruro, who belonged to the assembly's majority. To keep up the pressure, CCIMCA sent a committee to interview them, record their promises and even made them agree in writing to adhere to the gender agenda. The final product of this long and profoundly democratic process was a draft document containing 33 articles referring directly or indirectly to each concern in the complete list compiled by the activists in the Coordinadora de la Mujer. Evelyn Barrón still shakes her head in amazement at this success. "Frankly, it exceeded my wildest expectations," she said. Bolivia's new constitution corrects multiple injustices discussed in CCIMCA workshops, and some of the corrections apply to men as well as women. Among other provisions, the constitution

  • recognizes work in the home,
  • requires equal pay and equal employment opportunity for both sexes,
  • prohibits sex discrimination,
  • outlaws domestic and community violence and discrimination, and
  • defines property rights for campesinas who historically had none.
After the assembly had agreed on a draft and the Bolivian congress had approved it, the new constitution was put to the test of a national referendum and Bolivian women entered a new phase of advocacy. During the campaign on the referendum, CCIMCA appealed to the prefecture of Oruro, the equivalent of a state government, to help publicize the new guarantees via a booklet illustrated with Treviño's work. The prefecture financed the printing of 1,000 copies for CCIMCA's distribution and several thousand more for its own distribution through government channels. German Teviño's illustrations highlighting the new constitutional commitment to equal rights were posted strategically throughout Oruro. CCIMCA and AMPUIE staff held court on street corners and staged street theater conveying the same message.

Gearing up for the next phase, CCIMCA and AMPUIE are, once again, mobilizing the grassroots in Oruro, this time to ensure the application of the new constitutional provisions. Many challenges lie ahead. As in the past, CCIMCA will rely on its workshops, trainers, its talented artist and the women they reach in the daunting task of consolidating social change.

Kevin Healy is IAF representative for Bolivia. Eduardo Rodríguez-Frías wrote the introduction to this article.