Bolivia: Women Clamour for Right to Land

(IPS) – Despite major advances in land distribution in Bolivia, single, widowed and undocumented women in this South American country have little chances of owning rural lands due to the patriarchal traditions and customary practices of indigenous peoples, in violation of international instruments and conventions protecting women’s rights.

The struggle of Bolivian women to own productive land is only just beginning, representatives from such diverse geographical areas as the Andean highlands, the Amazon jungle and the dry Chaco lowlands said to IPS at a women’s movement meeting in La Paz earlier this month.

The National Meeting on Women’s Access to Land, organised by the non-governmental women’s group Coordinadora de la Mujer, brought together representatives of women peasant farmer movements to examine the legal framework that regulates land ownership and access, and demanded that the government eliminate the discriminating practices and red tape that stand in the way of women’s access to land titles.

Women’s access to land has long been recognised as a right by international instruments, and women’s equal access to property is specifically protected under Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted three decades ago this Dec. 18.

CEDAW is considered the most important and comprehensive international treaty on the human rights of women. Currently ratified by 185 countries, it is often referred to as the bill of rights for women.

It laid out a standard that has shaped national and international laws and regulations for the protection of women’s cultural, economic, political and social rights, and provided a powerful instrument for the promotion of gender equality around the world. Among other advances, CEDAW has served to pressure governments into furthering women’s equal participation in rural development and agrarian reform.

But in Bolivia, as in many places in the world, what’s protected by law is often far from reflecting reality.

Few of the meeting’s participants were even aware that the rights of rural women are specifically protected under the country’s new constitution, which took effect in February, and by a special provision of the National Agrarian Reform Service Act, in effect since 1996.

Much less did they know that in 2008, in its consideration of the country reports submitted by Bolivia pursuant to Article 18 of CEDAW – which requires that parties report every four years on measures adopted to implement the Convention – the CEDAW Committee urged Bolivia to "adopt measures to ensure women’s equal access to land," and "explicitly address the structural nature and various dimensions of poverty faced by women, in particular women living in rural areas, indigenous women, older women and women with disabilities."

The 1996 agrarian reform law calls for the application of "considerations of equity in the distribution, administration, occupancy and utilisation of the land in the interest of women regardless of marital status," thus incorporating CEDAW’s mandate that rural women be treated equally by guaranteeing their right "to have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes."

A reality far from the law

But the rural women interviewed by IPS complained that, in practice, laws and declarations are largely ignored in male-dominated sectors of rural communities, and circumvented by government institutions that put up a host of arguments to evade compliance.

In the Andean highlands in western Bolivia, where the population is largely indigenous, requests by single women to own land individually are rejected by their communities, as it is traditionally believed that women’s sole connection with the land is through their male relatives, former constituent assembly member and peasant activist Peregrina Cusi complained.

In the southeastern Chaco region, which comprises the departments of Tarija, Chuquisaca and Santa Cruz, Alejandrina Avenante, a leader of the Guarani People Assembly, is working hard to demonstrate that single women do have an interest in working the land, going against strong resistance from men.

With this aim, Avenante has organised a group of single mothers in the community of Tarairí, department of Tarija, some 1,200 kilometres from La Paz. Overcoming the prejudices of indigenous authorities, she helped these women inherit land titles, and encouraged them to build housing and begin working the land.

Many of the women hired men to build their houses but made the mud brinks themselves, and they have begun planting corn, cassava, sweet potatoes, peppers and peas.

"They’ve proven that they can contribute (to their families’ livelihoods) with their own food production, or with hair products made from indigenous plants, or with handmade crafts," Avenante said proudly.

While progress can be seen in the Andean highlands and the Chaco region, the population of the Amazon rainforest – a remote and difficult-to-access region in the east – has little knowledge of women’s right to hold agricultural plots, said Jesusaida Vaca, an activist with the Pando Bartolina Sisa Peasant Women’s Federation.

Vaca, a representative of the Canahán community in Bolpebra, a municipality located where Bolivia borders with both Peru and Brazil, travelled for two days, riding on several means of transportation, to attend the meeting in La Paz, 1,300 kilometres from her home, and share her experience and aspirations with other women like her from different regions.

"So far the government has only legalised communal lands, and no individual lands. A poor woman has little chance of holding property. We only say the land is ours because we work it, but we don’t have a title that certifies ownership," Vaca said.

In the Amazon region, even though women take over their plots when their husbands die, they’re usually relegated to the sphere of the home and childcare. "You can’t talk about that sort of thing when your husband’s around," she said referring to women’s access to land.

"Machismo is widespread. We’re not an exception," said Marfa Inofuentes, a representative of the Afro-Bolivian Centre for Integral and Community Development (CADIC). Inofuentes’ efforts have been instrumental in socially integrating many members of Bolivia’s black community in what is a predominantly Aymara and Quechua culture.

Six months ago the Afro-Bolivian community of the semi-tropical region of Los Yungas, 70 kilometres north of La Paz – a settlement of 35,000 people that dates back to colonial times – was granted 191 hectares in a rural establishment that belonged to former rightwing president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997 and 2002-2003).

"It meant recovering lands that originally belonged to our people and which Sánchez de Lozada had purchased from our grandparents for pennies," Inofuentes said. But she also expressed concern because ownership of many of the plots they live on is still not recognised in official land titles.

More alarming, she said, is the fact that in this area "not a single woman holds property under her name." They only access a plot when their husband dies, and that’s only if there are no sons in the family. It’s part of the historical lack of protection these women endure, she said.

In fact, in its 2008 observations, the CEDAW Committee expressed particular concern over the situation of social invisibility and marginalisation suffered by the Afro-Bolivian community, which hinders their access to basic social services, and consequently urged the State "to take the necessary steps to address the specific vulnerability of Afro-Bolivian women and report on measures taken in this respect in its next report (2011)."

The Afro-Bolivian community is spread across the provinces of Casanova, Inquisivi and North and South Yungas, a warm climate region of lush vegetation, where there are also a large number of Aymara farmers who have flocked to the area more recently, attracted by the possibilities offered by fruit and coca crops.

Carmen Avila, a representative of the Coordinadora de la Mujer, told IPS that progress has been made with laws that stipulate equal distribution, tenure and ownership of land. But she warned that women are still widely barred from enjoying that right.

In addition to the red tape, another hurdle standing in the way to women’s access to land is the fact that many women in rural areas are undocumented – they lack basic documentation such as a birth certificate or an identity card. There is also the problem of "discrimination exhibited by civil servants in the application of the law," Avila denounced.

More land titles

In the government’s defence, Florien Soto, general land director and until recently indigenous leader active in the department of Oruro, contended that the bodies in charge of managing lands have regained the trust of the people because their current employees come from grassroots organisations.

In its last report to the CEDAW Committee, the Bolivian government identified women’s right to ownership of land as "one of the most problematic issues" and one of the topics tackled by the State.

In this sense it highlighted its efforts in the granting of agricultural land titles to women and committed itself to further actions aimed at achieving "equal participation" of men and women in access to land ownership and the process of regularisation of rural land titles.

Soto presented a comparative table that showed that as of January this year, a total of 10,299 land titles, comprising a combined surface area of 164,401 hectares, had been granted to women since Evo Morales – Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president – took office in January 2006.

According to the official report, these figures represent a major improvement with respect to previous administrations. For example, during the second government of Hugo Banzer (1997-2001), only 431 land titles were granted to women.

Under President Jorge Quiroga (2001-2002), the number of land titles for women dropped to 347, while in the second administration of Sánchez de Lozada (2002-2003), only 283 women were granted official ownership of their lands.

The figure increased substantially to 1,576 during the government of Carlos Mesa (2003-2005), while the administration of his successor, Eduardo Rodríguez (2005-2006), granted 1,488 titles.

An analysis conducted by the Coordinadora de la Mujer, based on 1997- 2006 data, reveals that of a total of 29,063 titles, only 4,973 were granted to women, while 13,011 were awarded to men, and the rest went to community organisations (1,814) and married couples (9,265).

This study does not include the 2007-2008 period and the first month of 2009, which are included in the official comparative study presented by Soto.