Bolivian Radical Feminist Maria Galindo on Evo Morales, Sex-Ed, and Rebellion in the Universe of Women

Maria Galindo

Mujeres Creando is a radical feminist organization that has been confronting the patriarchalism of Bolivian society since the 1980’s.  During a recent visit, one of the founders, Maria Galindo, spoke with us about women’s rights, access to work, education, reproductive freedom and politics during the presidency of Evo Morales in Bolivia. We met in the restaurant of their small hotel and cultural center in the capital La Paz, while the Mujeres Creando radio station, broadcasting from another room, played on the speaker in the background.

Maria GalindoMujeres Creando is a radical feminist organization that has been confronting the patriarchalism of Bolivian society since the 1980’s.  We spoke with one of the founders, Maria Galindo, in the restaurant of their small hotel and cultural center in the capital La Paz, while the Mujeres Creando radio station, broadcasting from another room, played on the speaker in the background.  

When Maria joined us she brought along another North American, Phillip Berryman, a teacher and professional translator, explaining that since he had also asked for an interview, she would take our questions together.

Sharyl Green: The first big question is about the Evo Morales administration:  how are specifically women’s issues being handled?  Is there being progress made?  Today’s newspaper says that 11% of the issues in the constitution passed 3 years ago have been put into laws now–how is this impacting women’s issues?  Of course, the caveat is that all issues are women’s issues.  But the abortion issue, for example, and other things that you see as directly affecting women’s well being.

Maria Galindo: Well, in general about Evo Morales, it is very complex; inside, Evo Morales has had a kind of evolution.  Evo Morales now is not the Evo Morales of the beginning.  In the beginning there was a lot of hope, a lot of social expectation, and really a very strong relation between MAS and the government.  In this sixth year it has developed not in positive ways but in negative ways.  For example, Evo Morales says, I mean his government, “we need to have a very big control over social organizations, to stay in power.  To grow this social control we have to buy the heads of these social organizations.”  So the heads of the social organizations are now in the control of the government.  But not the bases.  It means that the head of the social organizations have taken money from the government, and projects, but it doesn’t mean a real a real presence of the social organizations, with their questions.  It is like a theater.  Here we have the people with us, but just the friends of Evo Morales, and friends who are there because they have some advantages.  So it means a very big lack of real social transformation, because they are not working on the concrete problems of any social piece of the society, they are just working so that everybody thinks and everybody feels that Evo Morales is the only solution for everybody in Bolivia.  So we have a process of “caudillizacion.”  He is the change, the change is he, he is everything, he is the defender, so it makes a degradation in the social and political process.  

SG: So there is a hierarchy…

MG: Not only the hierarchy, but I will say it in Spanish:  it is a process of caudillizacion [The making of a “caudillo,” or charismatic leader].  The figure of Evo Morales is the center of everything.  it is really a very big mistake.  For the women it is very contradictory and it is very well disguised.  Why?  The first law, which was the most important, was a cash payment, the “bono Juana Asurdo” (named after a heroine of the revolution against Spain in the 19th century.)  It’s a payment for every woman who has a baby–as every fascist government did.  It is not so much:  a thousand, eight hundred bolivianos ($261 US dollars.)  You cannot do anything with that.  But again, “women” means “babies.”  The poorest women in Bolivia–maybe they could need that money.  But to get that money you have to go to the doctor, the doctor gives you a paper saying you are going to have a baby, and then you have to go to the bank to get the money from the state.  But the poorest women do not have an ID of a Bolivian citizen to go to the bank.  So it is really absurd.  And it is like a portrait of the thinking of this government.  

On the other hand, since the nineties because of a policy of the United Nations there is a sort of quota of women in every political party.  It is a liberal policy, not a socialist policy, this policy of “equality.”  So every party has a percentage of women, and some percentage of women are elected as deputies and senators.  This began in the nineties, and it is copied through all of Latin America, it is not originally Bolivian.  The social movement of women here never asked to get representation in parliament.  It came from the UN.  Since the nineties, the parties, also of the right, say, “OK, we are gentlemen, we are going to get this law.”  

So since the nineties you have a low percentage of women in the parliament, women who are elected to represent the party.  Not to represent the society or the women in the society.  And this percentage of women never means a voice for women.  They mean a feminine voice for the party, which is really very different.  It is a phenomenon of the whole of Latin American politics.  Evo Morales has taken the same mainstream idea and put it in his policy.  Now you have a higher percentage of women, I think it is around forty percent, I am not so sure, I really don’t pay much attention to that.  And they have the same policy for the cabinet ministers and the judges.  But with the same rules:  women from our party are going to do what we want.  Women who have responsibility for health, in many things, they really didn’t do anything for women.  Because it is enough to be there and say, “I am here, I am a voice for women.”  

So they make a careful selection of women to keep out those women who are dangerous, who speak loud, who think for themselves.  There is a lot of aggression against rebel women in social movements now in Bolivia.  It is not the responsibility of Evo Morales, it is the way it is in this moment. 

So your point with abortion–it is like going with a bus to the moon.  We are very distant from that point.  I have had interviews with all of the women in the cabinet [Maria has a regular radio program broadcast from Mujeres Creando], with all the heads of women’s movements who are with Evo Morales, with Bartolina Sisa (a movement named after an Aymara heroine of the 1700’s who fought against the Spanish),  with everybody of these movements.  I ask them about abortion.  Because abortion is a problem of poverty.  White young women, if they have four hundred dollars they can get an abortion.  The indigenous, poor young women who don’t have the money get an abortion with a big risk, and they die.  And they have a lot of fear.

SG: There doctors in the country who will perform a safe abortion for $400?

MG: It’s just a question of hypocrisy.  You can go to the big cemetery in La Paz, and then you come walking down–you will see on both sides of the street little clinics.  And you know, a room cannot be a clinic.  So you see clinic, clinic, clinic, clinic…”If you have a question, come here, woman’s clinic”  All those places are for abortion.  Everybody knows, it is not a secret.  

SG: And the government is not interfering?

MG: No, no, they don’t do anything.  But for example, last December there was a young woman in Santa Cruz who killed her baby–the baby came and she killed it.  She went to jail, because of murder.  And she said, “I have been raped.  I didn’t want this kid.”  The police do nothing.  The doctors make money, not so much, but they make money.  But when a woman is so alone, so vulnerable, as that girl, then she goes to jail.  It is a case of hypocrisy.  But no woman of these indigenous social movements is willing to speak positively of the right–not of my right, of a feminist–of the right of those girls in the country to make a choice.  So they are not ready–I asked every woman in parliament about abortion.  All of them are against abortion, all of them.  There is not one woman who says, “OK, they have the right.”  We have to fight for this which is very concrete.

SG: And probably most of them have someone in their extended family or someone they know…

MG: Oh sure, sure, sure…because abortion in Bolivia is a mass problem, it is not an individual problem of one girl there.  Because you don’t have sexual education in the law and in the schools.  You have a sort of macho culture in sexuality, which means every boy wants to show his power against a girl.  So it is really a big mass problem.  And you see many very young women with kids, and no father.  On our radio here we make a list of fathers who don’t pay for their kids, and it is really a big success.  We broadcast their name, their age, and the place where they work.  Five times in one day, and no woman has to pay for that.  And it is very interesting because it is not only for those whose name is read, but it is a message to the whole society.

SG: Mujeres Creando–connection to the government, influence.  You have two roles here–maybe they are combined–you’re a journalist and you’re a member of this community.  What is the administration’s connection, relationship, acknowledgement of Mujeres Creando?

MG: Acknowledgement in no sense.  But I think that we, Mujeres Creando, have had a big influence in the society, because we speak very loud.  And we don’t just speak, we also make things.  So we have a strong influence, I feel it everywhere, all the time.  This government of Evo Morales acts as if we don’t exist, we are not here, we don’t make anything.  But it doesn’t mean anything, because we are not fixed on the idea that the only policy which has succeeded is the relationship with the state.  We have analyzed this for many, many years:  what do we want from the state?  We don’t want anything from the state.  Not only laws–laws don’t change anything.  Many social movements in Bolivia have the domestication in mind, “We get the law, we get a change in the situation.”  But we are not asking for a law, we are not asking to be in the parliament, we are not asking to get money from the government, but we take positions on every governmental policy.  

We are not on our Fantasy Island, but we are not thinking that we have to be recognized from the state.  For example, when the constitutional process four or five years ago was going on in Bolivia we made a social theory which was very interesting.  We said, “We don’t want equality between men and women, this is not our view.  We want a ‘despatriarcalizacion’ of society.”  I cannot say it in English because it is a word which we invented  (de-patriarchalization).  And now every document from the government that has to do with women says “despatriarcalizacion.”  They have taken the word from us.  It is proof of our big influence in their minds, but it is not a reality because, for example, they never ask us to discuss what this “depatriarcalizacion” means.  It is a complicated relationship.

SG: It’s a big question in the United States, too, these days.  There’s a lot of movement outside the government, where the goal is not to work for the party, trying to get people elected.  It’s an exciting time:  are you going to work on the outside or are you going to try to get people into the inside?  So people are making some very interesting choices.  It sounds like your choice has been to work on the outside and to have a wide influence, not just with women but with society as a whole, getting people to think more clearly or deeply, or to look at their own patterns in a new way.

MG: Yes, it’s not that we think we are going to tell people what the truth is, that’s very important.  You made the point very well.  For us, women are “political subjects” (protagonists.)  So we work in this way, considering women to be political subjects, not “beneficiaries,” “vulnerability,” “Oh, poor women!”  stuff like that.  We not only speak, we act.  For example we have little programs which have a very interesting methodology, programs which work, and programs which are for the people.  We have a very interesting program in violence against women which is very practical, and we act in every case we can and we have a program for mothers which is about thinking about being a mother in another way.  Both of them have a big influence in society, but we don’t get many women because we function on a small scale.  But they are examples–we are not only ready to speak, we are ready to act.  

That is the big difference, because you find in Bolivia many intellectuals, some better, some not so good, who are good at critical thinking, and they speak, also, but they are not doing anything but just speak.  We think that this is a big mistake.  You have so many years of Bolivian political thinking where you can find the miners, you can find the indigenous, you can find the young people, and never women.  All social movements have a sort of masculine face, and women have been thought of as those of as a vulnerable piece of society,  we have to protect women, we have to protect women as mothers, and that’s the idea of the state.  And that idea hasn’t changed.  We are in the same point as we were. 

Phillip Berryman: I understand your argument about women in politics.  Do you see signs of women breaking out of traditional roles in other areas such as business?

MG: I think there is a big confusion in that in general, not only in Bolivia.  For example, here in Bolivia you have women in the military.  Is it a proof of rebellion?  Is it a proof of something we have gained?  Can we celebrate?  You have women working, but in what conditions?

SG: Just the other day there was a lot of police presence near the capital, and there were women.  I happened to look down and a woman policeperson had on very pointy boots with high heels, and I thought, “How can she do what she might need to do with high heels?”  It struck me as very ironic.

MG: Ironic, that’s the word.  In many of those examples there is a lot of ambiguity.  It does not mean a victory in Bolivian society for women to go into the military.  The military forces committed a lot of abuses against boys [recruits.]  Many died.  At the time there was some thinking that there would be the possibility that they would reject military service.  So the government said, “OK, for the boys it is obligatory, they cannot choose.  But women can join, and they can choose.”  And the women stood in line from five in the morning to get into the military.   They would make any sacrifice to get in.  Why?  There is a lot of contradiction.  Neoliberalism and liberalism in Latin America says you have the right.  You have to fight for your rights, but you have them–you are equal.  We have now, in the whole world, lots of women with lots of power.  What does it mean?  It’s a big question for us as feminists, also, because no woman in power, in Bolivia, Germany, or wherever, is there because of feminist thinking.  She is there because of patriarchal thinking.  

I am not so interested in Cristina Kirchner or Merkel, I am interested in the mass.  In the mass of women there is an impulse to get the space of men, and they are ready to pay the tax to get the masculine values like competition, use of force, use of violence.  There is a mass of women who think that way.  So here in Bolivia there are women who want to be police.  But the highest percentage of violence toward women in private life comes from policemen.  And then you see this irony you spoke about.  They get there, but then they are…the women.  Where are we?  But from the other side, to answer your question [PB’s] you can see a lot of mass social rebellion of women.  For example, lots of women are ready to denounce violence, and this is a rebel act.  Lots of women are in the university.  I have been teaching here in the public university.  Fifty percent in all the fields are women.  There is not a field where men can say, “This is our field.”  But in he fields of women you don’t find men.  This revolution is not on the side of being a man, of being masculine.

SG: So if you look for example at early childhood education, or human development, or history of women, there are no men?

Ekeka made by Mujeres CreandoMG: I have to show you something:  the story of the Ekeko.  This is a reflection of what is happening with women in the Bolivian society now.  This was created by a young artist who is in our movement.  She is twenty years old.  I am forty-seven, and we work together.  Do you know the story of Ekeko?  I will explain it.  Ekeko is an Andean god of abundance.  He is a little, short man who carries everything on his back.  Food, cars, electric appliances, everything that you might want to have.  He goes back hundreds of years, at least since the end of the 1700’s.  If you venerate the image of Ekeko, you will have everything you want in your home.  It is clearly the deification of the father who brings everything you need, which is very false.  There is a statue of Ekeko in a special place in the home, and every Friday the woman of the house has to give him a cigarette.  She has to put it in the mouth of the statue and light it.  It also has an erotic symbolism–you find many Ekekos with an erect penis.  So he is going to give you everything, well-being and pleasure.  In many homes you find this little man in the best place.  

So we made a woman in his place.  [She shows us a small statue, about seven inches long and seven inches high.  It is a woman with a bundle as big as herself on her shoulders, while behind her there is the figure of a man sprawled out, sleeping, bottle in hand.] Instead of him, it’s her.  In the bundle she is carrying on her shoulders she has her heart, which is not damaged.  And she has everything:  a house, and music, and food–everything you need.  And she has wings, because she wants freedom.  She has books, because she wants to learn.  If you go to a night school you will see many women there, because so many women had to drop out of school, but now they want to learn.  And she has a suitcase, because she is leaving.  This is another rebellious feeling of many women: “I am ready to leave you.”  And the suitcase is labeled, in it are dreams, hopes, rebellion, and happiness.  And she is leaving the little god Ekeko–drunk, lazy, macho.  And the letter she leaves for him says, “The Ekeka was always me.”  

We sell these in our booth in the market.  To sell these is a political act.  We speak with the women, and they really laugh.  Every woman understands it, the woman who sells bread, the woman who is in an office, and the woman who is in parliament.  

SG: Are they selling well?

MG: Yes.  It is not so cheap, because we want the girl who makes them to have some money from this.  The most important thing is that we want to get into the popular imagination.  It has a place in the heart of the people.  

SG: And what about this other figure of a man with a baby on his back and a shopping bag in one hand and a broom in the other?

MG: This man is Evo Morales.  He is carrying a kid on his back like an indigenous woman.  No man carries a kid this way, it would be against his dignity.  And he is ready to clean the house and go to the market.  This was the most important man of the Bolivian revolution (which is not a revolution, really.)  We really sold these as if they were bread.  Now no more because he is not so popular any more.  Back when he was on top I went to a big political affair and I gave one to him as a present.  He took it and threw it to one of his bodyguards.  He didn’t take it and laugh, he was hostile, it was disgusting for him.  That was a sign!  I wondered, “Why isn’t he ready to laugh with us, and say, ‘Why not?’ or ‘Interesting!’ or ‘Thank you very much,’ or whatever.”  

This is the state of rebellion of women.  If you don’t understand you would say, “Ah these women are saying every man is a drunk…”  but it is much more than that, it is a symbol.  

SG: It’s more about women…

MG: Yeah.  Before coming here I was interviewing a woman.  She wants to separate from her man.  When she was fourteen a member of her family gave her as a present to a military man who was twenty-eight.  He had a kid that he needed somebody to take care of.  So she went with the military man and was with him, in my eyes in the state of slavery.  But in the eyes of society as a wife.  She was crying in the market and a woman asked, “Why are you crying?”  When she explained the woman said, “Go to those women.” [I. e. Mujeres Creando.] 

SG: How old is she now?

MG: She is between fifty and sixty.  She has four kids with the military man, her whole life thinking, “I am going to leave him.”  You can say those stories cannot be true now, but they are now still true.  They are not all our stories.  That is not my story.  But we, as women, are in the same historical and social place as that woman.  If we take her as a sister, she was, or is, in slavery.

I have been working a lot with prostitution, and I really know that problem, I have done many things with that universe.  In Bolivia, every prostitute has to be legally registered.  That means she has to give her real name, her address, the place where she works as a prostitute, and they take a photograph and make a document.  You have to have that document from the health ministry to work as a prostitute.  Also, you have to go to the doctor once a week, just to be checked in your vagina.  Just that.  If you have a problem in your eyes or wherever it doesn’t matter, they just examine your vagina.  And you get a paper that says ‘permitted.’  They are only paying attention to the health of the men.  And this is happening now, not a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago.  

This [pointing to a picture on the wall] is a photograph of a prostitute from the early 1900’s.  The police took those photographs of every prostitute:  two views, front and profile.  In those days a woman had to wear a black cloth on her head to show that she was a prostitute.  Police had those archives.  Since 2000 the police do not take photos, now it is the health ministry that does the vaginal check-ups to say you can go with a client.  

I have done hundreds  of seminars, projects, letters, whatever.  We started an organization to work with women.  In our view everything should be done with the woman.  For example the woman in a state of slavery:  she is the one who wants to get out of that.  I am not the one to say you have to do that.  It is very important.  Every woman has to say what she wants to do.  They find in us a friend,  a political group or whatever, but she has to know.

PB: Do you see signs of change in the attitudes of men?

MG: Not in Bolivia.  I don’t see change in the universe of men.  I see a lot of change in some parts of the universe of women–because we are not all one piece, we are complex–but I see almost no change in the world of men.  Man is in a deep crisis.  Women are making changes and men stay there and cannot change.  For example, there is a very big market in prostitution.  Who is going to that market?  I can show you very young men and very old men using that market.  You can see miners  and professionals using that market, it is just a question of price.  You can find a very cheap prostitute and a very expensive one.  The market of prostitution is growing.  Men go there to buy a woman.  I don’t see any change there.  

What is going on with men?  On my radio program I have women speaking about violence against women.  I have opened a place for men to speak about violence against women, but no man wants to come.  Men want to speak about revolution, about the price of gasoline or diesel, about political representation, or history, but they don’t want to speak about themselves.  It is difficult to ask them to speak about that, it is like an offense, like something without respect.  

PB: In Colombia I saw a bit of propaganda against domestic violence–a reggaeton singer or something like that.

MG; You can see that in Bolivia also, famous men who get paid–it doesn’t mean anything.  The government makes this theater with money from international cooperation–there is no money from the Bolivian state.  It is not well thought out, just something staged–very easy to say.  If you see the use of women in mass media–it makes me sick.  Everywhere, for everything, and no limits.

SG: Women in prison–we talked with a woman who works with prisoners and learned that women can have their children with them in prison, that they can work to earn money, that they are self governing.  How do you see programs for women in prison?  

MG: I don’t have a very deep knowledge about prisons.  I began a series of radio programs every fifteen days from the prison.  We went there and the women would speak.  It was wonderful, we had permission for twelve programs, but we did only two.  That’s true, women can have there children with them in prison.  The kids go to school and then after school they come back to the prison.  It depends on their age.  They work in the prison, but those are not state organized programs, the point is that the state does not have money for the prison, and they don’t want to spend money on the prison, they want a cheap prison.  The women work because if they didn’t they could die of hunger.  They couldn’t survive there with out working.  

The reason that I didn’t have permission to do more programs was that the women do laundry, they get nine Bolivianos for twelve pieces.  From these nine Bolivianos the police take some money.  But they don’t have permission to take that money.  They told about it on the radio so everybody knew about it.  So they put the woman who told about that into solitary confinement, there was a big scandal, and I lost my permission–no more radio programs.  

You could go there.  If you know someone you could go without any permission and say that you are scheduled to visit so-and -so and you would see, they have built a little society inside.  But they have two showers for a hundred and sixty women, and they pay for the shower.  They have two kinds of spaces.  They have a place to sleep, for that they don’t have to pay.  But then they get out into a big place for the whole day.  In that big place many have built places to spend the day.  To get one of them they have to pay.  A woman who doesn’t have one Boliviano doesn’t have a place all day.  Whatever they have is the product of their struggle.