(IPS) – Teenage Aymara girls only mature as women in the eyes of their community when they are able to demonstrate great industriousness and knowledge of traditional tasks. But by virtue of that same condition they are denied rights, justice and access to community leadership positions.
These are some of the findings of a research study on gender rights in the Bolivian highlands, which illustrates the little-known reality of women who must skillfully manage a wide range of obligations, such as running the household, educating their children, making crafts and working in the fields alongside the men, while not fully enjoying their rights.
"A hard-working woman is highly valued by these communities. But a woman who just stays at home looking after her ‘wawas’ (children) and cooking is considered lazy," linguist Filomena Nina Huarcacho told IPS.
Nina Huarcacho is one of the researchers who participated in the study, entitled "Detrás del cristal con que se mira: Mujeres del Altiplano, órdenes normativos e interlegalidad" (Behind the Eye of the Beholder: Women from the Andean Highlands, Regulatory and Inter-Legal Systems), which was conducted by the non-governmental women’s organisation Coordinadora de la Mujer.
The aim of the study was to examine how gender relations are constructed in various indigenous peasant communities in Bolivia’s highlands, focusing on the values and views that shape social relations, the administration of justice and conflict resolution in connection with women’s rights, and analysing which aspects could help guarantee the full exercise of such rights and which tend to reproduce forms of gender oppression.
The study, which gathered the personal accounts of women in six native Aymara communities, found that a girl’s passage into womanhood requires a knowledge of both economic and cultural activities, including animal grazing, weaving, medicinal herb uses and ritual and ceremonial practices.
Indigenous people make up an estimated 60 percent of the population of 9.2 million. The remaining 40 percent of the population is mainly mestizo (mixed Spanish and Amerindian), with a small white minority.
Most of Bolivia’s Indians belong to the Quechua or Aymara ethnic groups, which are concentrated in the western highlands. There are also around three dozen smaller native groups.
In Bolivia, South America’s most impoverished country, at least 70 percent of people live below the poverty line and indigenous people are the poorest of the poor.
"The idea of a male-female hierarchy is based on men’s superior physical strength. But according to this line of reasoning, if brute force is associated with male labour, it follows that women’s work capability should be based on the more subtle strength of knowledge, memory and skill," the Aymara linguist said.
In Calamarca – a highland town 60 kilometres south of La Paz, and 4,000 metres above sea level – Delfina Laura, an 82-year-old woman who was born into a Quechua family but has lived among the Aymara for the past 34 years, told IPS just how much Aymara women have evolved over recent years.
"Women are sharper now; they’re not as easily fooled as they used to be," she said, describing today’s Aymara women as skillful traders of potatoes, "chuño" (a freeze-dried potato staple), cows and sheep.
"Unlike men, who usually drink away every cent they make, Aymara women are more careful with their money and use it wisely to buy food and multiply their income," Laura said at the town plaza where she sells soft drinks, cookies and candy, as she laid out a soft sheepskin for her guest to sit on.
"Today women have the opportunity to study and finish high school, and that gives them strength," she said, adding that she never got a chance to learn to read and write because her parents abandoned her when she was only four, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother. As she remembered this her smile, which lit up her face throughout the interview, briefly faded.
Sixty years ago, when Laura lost her husband and two children, she turned to the age-old Aymara practice of selling foodstuffs and wares as a way to make a living on her own. For years she went from rural market to rural market – where barter is still the leading form of commerce- trading her goods, until finally she settled down in Calamarca, or ‘stone town’ in the Aymara language, a community of 2,000 people.
Flavia Amaru runs a one-and-a-half hectare family plot, where she puts into practice her extensive know-how in planting and raising farm animals. She dresses in the traditional long-pleated skirt, blanket and bowler hat typical of the women of Calamarca, but she stands out from the rest because she holds a vocational institute degree in agriculture, in which she specialised in animal breeding.
When asked why she didn’t go on to earn a university degree in agronomy, she smiles sadly and tells IPS that it was "because of my family, my home and my three daughters."
Amaru, who is married to an agricultural engineer, prefers not to elaborate on her decision to leave the privilege of holding a university degree to her husband, settling instead for a vocational degree to avoid making trouble or creating conflicts in the family.
But it is on her shoulders that the bulk of the workload falls. She works long days, rising at six in the morning, when the temperature in the Andean highlands drops below zero degrees Celsius. She takes care of her daughters – who go to school in town -, does all the housework and the cooking, and tends to the family plot.
There she grows vegetables and raises animals, overseeing production activities and working harder than her three hired hands. But she underlines that her husband is the one in charge. She works 15 hours a day, which extend to 17 hours during the harvest.
Amaru admits that for all that effort her only reward is "the satisfaction of having a good yield," but she says, "that’s just the fate of women."
Women just have to bear with it
In fact, in the hundreds of interviews with Aymara women that Nina Huarcacho conducted, she heard one phrase over and over again when she asked them to describe what their duties are according to the community’s traditions and rules. Most women said they "just had to bear with it," even when that meant putting up with abuse and mistreatment.
For Amaru, violence is a natural part of "any home," and she said that Aymara women rarely resort to the traditional community justice system because it is in the hands of men, and these men know the women’s husbands and will tend to side with them.
Aymara women are for the most part denied access to land, only inheriting household equipment and furniture, while real estate property is passed on to the men in the family. Only if they are an only child can women remain in the parental home after they marry, but then the husband takes over running the land.
In January, Bolivian voters approved a new constitution that was drawn up by a predominantly indigenous constituent assembly. The assembly-members were chosen in elections convened by the country’s first native president, Socialist Evo Morales.
Morales, an Aymara Indian, had called on the assembly-members to "refound" Bolivia, and following that mandate the constituents gave greater rights to the country’s indigenous majority.
Under article 304, for example, the constitution grants autonomous indigenous and peasant communities the right to exercise jurisdiction over their territories, administering justice and conflict resolution pursuant to their own rules and procedures. But that principle still requires a law to regulate it and reconcile it with the principle of gender equality, which is also protected under the new constitution.
Nina Huarcacho said that the women interviewed "say they know very little about traditional community justice," and even less about how the ordinary justice system can help them protect their specific gender rights.
They expressed a desire to know their rights, but "they also said things like having to accept life as it is and that putting up with violence is just part of being a woman," she explained.
Some of the women interviewed believed that punishment enough for a man is "having to stay with me and take care of me when I’ve been beaten," Nina Huarcacho said.
In most cases, rural indigenous women "don’t form their own conception of justice. It is formed by their surroundings, which dictate what is good and what is bad, and builds their values and culture," attorney Adriana Ríos, an expert in gender and justice issues, told IPS.
Therefore, "Aymara women’s expectations for obtaining support for the protection of their personal rights in the community are nonexistent, more so in those places in which the community has gotten rid of ordinary courts and administers justice directly," she said.
In addition, the lack of basic legal knowledge and instruments preclude a proper application of community justice, Santos Mamani, head of the Children and Adolescent Defence Office in Calamarca, told IPS.
Manami, an attorney, has in fact been forced to fill gaps, taking on tasks such as family reconciliation and assuming the role of justice of the peace, while he tries to address the lack of knowledge of women’s rights through special training and awareness-raising courses.
In his municipal office, Mamani deals with cases from Calamarca and many remote villages, mainly pertaining to marriage and family problems, or abandoned children.
Based on the interviews, the study concludes that the role of women in the communities "is, above all, that of being companions to their men, like symbolic ornaments that serve to legitimate the rhetoric of equality, but without accepting it as an alternative form of political organisation."