New Blog about Gender and Women’s Issues in Bolivia

I wanted to bring it to our readers’ attention that there is an excellent new blog about gender and women’s issue in Bolivia.

It is by an anonymous author who is conducting research in the La Paz area. Here is the description:

“Eugenia de Altura is the blog of a female graduate student currently conducting research in La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, on issues of gender.”

So far there have been two entries. One about a march against domestic violence in El Alto and another about doing research on gender and women’s issues in the La Paz archives.

I think this is a great contribution to our discussions about Bolivia. Before learning about this, I was thinking of posting something here about some of the sad patterns I’ve seen in the countryside with respect to women. Hopefully I’ll get to that during the holiday! In any case, this blog reminded me about how important these issues are and I wanted to share with the rest of our readers.


Travels with Toddler

Despite the awful treatment we received by the AA CS reps, the flights were relatively uneventful even with an active and curious 17 month old. Flight attendants on both the ORD-MIA and MIA-VVI trips smiled and waved at Javi, told us to please ask for more juice, snacks, etc if we needed anything for him (even going so far to rinse out his sippy cup with hot water to clean it and then filling it up with ice and cold water for him to drink after he finished his milk).

I had been quite worried about how he’d do on such a long flight and having his entire environment disrupted. 17 month olds are incredibly adaptable, though, and so far travel seems to suit him well!

Passengers on the flight to MIA had less tolerance for Javi than passengers on the flight to Bolivia (where he was one of several young kids). He did start crying for about 5 minutes when we started our descent into MIA, and yes, I acknowledge that is frustrating. But Mr. Super-fancy glasses sitting in front of us? You do not need to turn and stare at us, then roll your eyes, when you see us *clearly* trying to calm him down quietly (after this crying spell, he promptly fell asleep). And Ms. Woman-looking-at-yearbook in our row? When we apologize for him squirming and trying to show you his car, you don’t have to wrinkle your nose in disgust. You can acknowledge his presence and yes, it is ok to say “I am trying to read” or something to us. We’d rather have that than sneers.

There is an important distinction here and one that makes Bolivia a relatively easy place to travel with a kid: kids are expected to inhabit public spaces in a way they are not in the U.S. Their presence is not viewed as an intrusion or as inappropriate. They’re seen and treated as human beings. Maybe particularly dependent human beings with specific needs and frustrations all their own, but entities in their own right. People ask what Javi wants, what they can do to help him, etc.

Not surprisingly, the flight to Bolivia was much easier. In fact, on the flight to MIA we were seated in front of some Korean-Bolivian cattle ranchers + school administrators (a dad, his wife, and two college aged musician sons) returning to Bolivia after a year long stay in Seoul. They were right in front of us to Bolivia, and played peek-a-boo with Javi, tickled him through the seat, and otherwise checked in with us to see if we needed their help. Sure, it is a long and at times uncomfortable flight. But overall it seemed that there was an acceptance that kids might cry. They need tp walk up and down the aisles. They’ll probably squirm and excitedly point out the window. But that’s what they do.

Now that we’ve been here for several days, I am impressed by how adaptable he is. Bolivia is great for kids – there are animals to see, parks to visit, mercados to wander through, a huge variety of food to eat (ice cream! cake! cookies!), new cars and trucks to look at, and, at least in Santa Cruz, a pool. It seems that he’s picked up on our excitement in being here, and is soaking in all the new experiences (instead of being scared by them).

If you are thinking of traveling to Bolivia with a small child but are concerned about the logistics/impact, I’d say go for it!

Bolivia’s mom and kid friendly new law

La Razón reports that all working women with nursing infants up to six months of age have the right to bring their babies to work or school with them, nurse them in a comfortable room under “condiciones óptimas,” and to continue their work/study with their infants for this period of time. The motivation behind the law is to encourage breastfeeding and fight infant malnutrition. (Of course, as Clare pointed out, “working women” here tends to mean those who work in occupations in the Western mold – offices, lecture halls, clinics, etc.)

But this law goes much further than simply promoting infant health through breastfeeding. It makes a statement that the role and place of women, mothers, and children in Bolivian society is everywhere and anywhere. Babies this age can integrate quite unobtrusively into many settings – including offices and classrooms. In the U.S. there is still a strong taboo about breastfeeding in public (mom forums even have an acronym for this – NIP, for nursing in public – and there are frequent discussions regarding being made to feel uncomfortable while nursing, not being able to nurse, rude comments received, etc) and an even stronger one against integrating children into “professional” work environments such as offices or lecture halls.

In Bolivia, these taboos certainly exist for many women, who tend to be indigenous migrants to the city, mestizas, or middle-class professionals. This law goes a long way to making a statement on gender equality and the rights of children. Empowering women to work with their children, instead of struggling to find the elusive balance between childcare, work demands, providing for one’s family, and so on, recognizes that children are an important part of society and should not be hidden in private spaces. They and their mothers belong everywhere and should be respected as productive members of society (which here includes the women’s work of bearing, feeding, and raising children). The law also addresses the perception (prevalent in the U.S. as well as parts of Bolivia) that offices, waiting rooms, and lecture halls are (often) coded as “male” and “public” spaces, such that women need to “act professional” (e.g. like men) in order to fit in. Bringing nursing infants and their mothers into these spaces forces such attitudes (however subtly) to shift. Furthermore, the law is predicated on the assumption that women can and should be bothmothers and professionals of various kinds (professors, commercial vendors, shopkeepers, students, etc) simultaneously. One does not preclude the other and the relationship between these roles does not have to be so fraught with anxiety.

Who knows how effective legislation will be in promoting breastfeeding and how many women will feel comfortable to bring their children into their specific work environment. But it is a fantastic start. I certainly wish that I could have avoided the dreaded breastpump for six months and worked with my son in a carrier or napping next to me in an office.

Let’s hope that the U.S. follows Bolivia’s lead on this one.

Here’s to a happy and healthy Mother’s Day for everyone.

Used Clothes, Fake Braids

When I was starting my fieldwork, a woman asked me if I washed my clothes. I admitted I paid someone to do it. But what about in the United States? she pressed. Of course, I answered, there I wash my clothes myself. She then told me that many Bolivians believe that Americans do not wash their clothes at all — they simply wear them and then throw them out, and then they are brought to El Alto and sold in its sprawling street market. While not (usually) literally true, I take this as a serious commentary on how American consumerism looks from the outside.

I am fascinated by two stories about Bolivia that have recently captured the attention of the American press. Both have been republished in a number of newspapers. The first concerned the young lady who lost the Miss Cholita title for wearing fake braids. The other was about how Evo wants to end the Bolivian trade in used American clothing which is undercutting the Bolivian manufacture of clothing.

It seems to me that these stories are related. Both concern whether identity is produced through interactions with material culture. Can one be a “real” Cholita without braids? Young Bolivian women do dress up as cholitas for entradas and festivals. And some young women also move back and forth between fashions, sometimes spending time “de vestido” before returning to dressing “de pollera,” or switching between the two depending on social context.

Dress — and hair — are not permanent. And yet both are part of larger networks of cultural practices, material goods, and economic networks. Both these articles point to the fact that in Bolivia this is recognized to be the case. What surprises me is that seems to interest the U.S. media more than other important issues in Bolivia today.