Bolivian Women’s Right to Land Thwarted by Patriarchal Traditions

(IPS) – Bolivian legislation on land ownership is highly favourable to women, but a lack of awareness makes it difficult to enforce these laws and ensure that women are able to obtain – and maintain – control of the land they farm.

This country’s legislation establishing women farmers’ right to land ownership is among the most advanced in Latin America, yet women continue to be forced off of the land to which they are legally entitled and expelled from their communities, according to Gaby Gómez-García, a consultant at the governmental National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA).

Patriarchal social traditions in indigenous communities and the high rate of illiteracy among rural women are the main obstacles to successfully enforcing the legislation, said Gómez-García, who stressed the need to raise awareness in order to harmonise the country’s laws with the customs and practices of indigenous peoples.

Roughly 60 percent of the population of this South American country of 10.4 million people belong to indigenous groups.

And although women make up just over half of the indigenous population, they account for only 47.6 percent of the 3.5 million Bolivians who live in rural areas, according to official statistics.

Gómez-García is co-author of the book “La tierra tiene nombre de mujer” (The Land Has a Woman’s Name), published by INRA. The book highlights the fact that property deeds for 164,401 hectares of land were allocated to 10,299 women between January 2006 and January 2009, as part of the government’s land reform efforts.

Evo Morales, the country’s first-ever native president, first took office in January 2006, and was re-elected on Dec. 10 to a second term that begins on Jan. 22.

By comparison, only 4,125 land ownership deeds were granted to women between 1997 and 2005.

But although significant progress has been made over the last few years, a great deal more still needs to be done, Gómez-García said in this interview with IPS.

Q: What guarantees and protections does the current legislation offer to women with regard to land ownership?

A: Legislation favourable to women has been in force since the adoption of the National Agrarian Reform Institute Act in 1996, which established recognition of women’s right to land ownership.

Under the Community Reorganisation Act of 2006, the government’s policies have targeted disadvantaged sectors, and therefore encompass the recognition of women’s rights, but the progress made in this area has never been measured.

Q: Have the advances made with regard to legislation been sufficient?

A: We have come to realise that while progress has been made in terms of formally recognising women’s rights through property deeds, this is not enough.

Beginning in 2010, the government officials who go to local communities to carry out field studies will demand active participation by women, but greater awareness is needed of the importance of this additional task in order to transform the structure of land ownership.

Q: Does INRA’s work end with the granting of property deeds?

A: Even after the deeds have been awarded, women are still unaware of their rights. Many of them do not know how to read and write, and they do not realise that the land is not exclusively owned by their husbands.

This is a very sensitive issue in communities in the Andean region, where the structure of land ownership is patriarchal. We do not even know exactly how many indigenous cultures adhere to this patriarchal model.

Q: In marriages between two people from different cultural groups, is women’s right to land recognised?

A: When women get married, they leave their own communities and move to their husbands’ villages. There are cases where women are abandoned and expelled from their former husbands’ communities, and then try to return to their home communities when they are old, but they are not allowed back because their children have a different surname (indicating membership of a different indigenous community).

When marriages break down, there is little tolerance in the communities and women are left without protection. INRA can’t do anything about it because communities must rule themselves within their own territory, under the system of autonomy and self-determination.

Q: How much resistance is there among the men in communities against the granting of ownership deeds to women?

A: In the case of smallholdings, there is a great deal of resistance and women must fight hard to be recognised as owners. But when they achieve this recognition, they gain social prestige, and their husbands cannot beat them anymore.

The biggest challenge is when community property is involved and the state cannot do anything. Women are powerless when the community intervenes, because only a husband or nephew can assume ownership of the land, and women are relegated to the role of domestic workers and subjected to greater poverty.

Q: How much still needs to be done to ensure recognition of these rights by society at large?

A: There is a need to work with women to help them realise that they have rights. They cannot exercise their rights if they are not aware of them, and this is a way to prevent them from being expelled from their communities.

INRA ends its involvement after turning over ownership deeds, but we want to foster spaces for dialogue, because we cannot simply impose our own rules and override the cultural practices of indigenous peoples.

There has to be a process leading to the community’s recognition of women and their relationship to the land. But financial support is needed in order to raise awareness and ensure respect for women’s rights, while recognising the rights of indigenous peoples at the same time.

Q: Are the existing laws sufficient to achieve these goals?

A: The current legislation provides ample formal recognition of women’s rights, but we have to work on harmonising the laws with community norms and practices.

For example, in the (central) highlands valley region, there is little likelihood of women being forced off of their land because they have a great deal of power. Many of them are the heads of their families, and the plots of land are small. They have fought hard for what they have.

In the lowlands (the plains and Amazon jungle in the north and east), I saw for myself that inter-ethnic marriages involve a great deal of violence. Women must tolerate a lot of abuse and are not defended by the community.

But among the Cavineño indigenous people (based in the northern provinces of Beni and Pando), women can have three husbands, and a woman with three husbands can very successfully administer her land with three men working for her.

Q: What experiences have emerged from the workshops aimed at listening to women’s demands?

A: One was held in November in the city of Oruro, with the participation of judicial authorities from the National Agrarian Court. It sparked a great deal of interest in learning more about women’s rights in their communities.

The new Bolivian constitution (in effect since February) states that each community should be ruled and regulated in accordance with its own customs and practices, and this is important, because the rights of the weak must not be violated.

These meetings allow for dialogue between the government authorities and indigenous leaders, who concur that discrimination against women is unjust, and have promised to seek ways to bring national laws and community traditions into line to ensure respect for women’s rights.