Issue - December 2009

December 2009


In this edition An analysis of the right to vote or not, as citizens option in a democratic society; traffic road safety problem in Cochabamba city Petra Vissers tells us about some initiatives to educate people; Justin Gouin interviews Cochabamba’s Red de Mujeres Lesbianas and Bisexuales de Bolivia founder

December 2009

Red de Mujeres: Towards Sexuality Without Boundaries

The Cocha-banner sits down with political activist Angela Fuentes Michel to discuss women’s rights, discrimination, and the cultivation of lesbian and bisexual identity in Bolivia

Justin Gouin
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Vancouver - Canada

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed resolution 217 A (III), better known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 of the declaration unambiguously affirms that without distinction of any kind every human being is entitled to the rights and freedoms contained therein.

While the Declaration was a symbolic step towards a world free of iniquities, over sixty years later it still has yet to find its principles universally adopted. For lesbian and bisexual communities across the globe, obtaining these rights has been a long and arduous process, and the degree to which movements have succeeded in different countries reveals a disparate pattern of recognition.

In Bolivia, this movement has only just begun to be recognized, and the question of extending human rights to this previously invisible community barely broached. Forced to either deny their sexuality or to live clandestine double lives, for years lesbian women in Bolivia had no choice but to repress one of the very cores of their identities. Subjected to oppressive discrimination in a society dependent on rigid gender roles, lesbian were not only prevented from expressing their own and cultivating a communal identity, but were also excluded from inheritances, removed from their jobs, and subjected to physical abuse.

In recent years, however, a strong movement, driven by women devoted to creating a society free of discrimination, has grown and continues to grow with impressive energy. Pooling their resources, consolidating their objectives, and united under a vision of a Bolivia with human rights for all, these women have undertaken the seemingly daunting task of claiming recognition for a community that for too long existed at the margins. In all of Bolivia’s major cities, organizations have sprung up to advocate the cause.

Having existed for hardly more than a year, Cochabamba’s own Red de Mujeres Lesbianas y Bisexuales de Bolivia (Lesbian and Bisexual Net of Bolivia) is among the oldest of these organizations. Beginning with the initiative of five women, Red de Mujeres was created with the intention of giving a voice and face to lesbian women who were traditionally excluded from social spaces, estranged from their rights, and ignored in political discourse.

According to Angela Fuentes Michel, founder of Red de Mujeres, among the most important tasks for the organization is to create safe spaces in which women are free to build their own identities. “The girls need these spaces to develop as human beings. Society does not recognize their identities as lesbians and bisexuals, and they don’t have a place to grow, to create, or to express themselves. Their identity is something hidden, something they are told to repress because they live within rigidly heterosexual patterns of social organization.”

She adds, “This generates a series of problems that ultimately determine the quality of their lives; how they view themselves, how they understand their rights, their self-esteem, are all highly influenced by how they seem themselves in relation to mainstream society. Their identities are only expressed in very specific spaces, nowhere else, and this is simply not right. We need to have a space inside society where we can exist with dignity.”

Rights cannot be extended to a group that does not have a face, and claiming spaces is paramount in the process of creating visibility. Red’s intention is to show Cochabambinas that they are not alone, that they are not deviants, that there are places where they can convene and express themselves in whichever manner they find is truest to their personal sense of identity.

Beginning with small meetings, reunions, film screenings, and parties, Red attempted to connect previously isolated women, encouraging involvement and supporting women in their transitions. Connections were established with groups in other departments, and small reunions and meetings began to take place, during which members would discuss both their efforts and their vision. “We didn’t know exactly what was going on in the other departments,” Fuentes states, “but we did know that we had been having some of the same problems as women in La Paz, in Sucre, and Santa Cruz.”

This ever-increasing cooperation has led to serious breakthroughs in terms coordinating national initiatives. Without limiting the independent actions and efforts of each individual organization, Fuentes explains that collaboration is integral to the movement, arguing that even if groups have different ideas the support that they can offer one another is indispensable.

The aspect of Red and its affiliate organizations that is unique, Fuentes emphasizes, is that their mandates pertain solely to the rights of women. Historically, women’s issues have fallen second to those of men, especially in the gay community, and this inevitably means that men create the framework for how rights and freedoms are to be extended. Instead, Red is determined to ensure that in Bolivia lesbian and bisexual identity remains in the hands of women in the community.

The importance of this rests in the internal challenges that the lesbian community faces, “We all have different needs. There are 50 year-old women who are divorced and are struggling with the social barriers to living with another woman. Then there are 15 year-olds who have also only just told their families and 35 year-olds who live with their families and have never said anything to anyone. They are a diverse group with specific needs. Many require more information and education simply to develop self-esteem; even then, there are others whose needs are more difficult to classify.”

Despite the immense difficulties that face Bolivia’s lesbians and bisexuals, Fuentes remains hopeful that change will come quickly for Bolivian women, suggesting that the recent intensification of public discourse surrounding universal equality and human rights has propitious consequences for the lesbian community. “Everything is possible,” she responds when asked where she envisions Bolivian society in ten and twenty years, “in ten years, I hope to see social spaces that recognize the right to a free union between two women, the right not to lose one’s inheritance based on sexual orientation, the right to extend health insurance and benefits to one’s partner and children. I dream of a society that acknowledges that two women have the same right to exist in spaces that are reserved only for men and women today. In twenty years, I don’t want to remember this fight; I want to enjoy my family, my children and my grandchildren. Right now I’m fighting every single day, I feel that I am in the line of fire, protecting my identity while fighting a war.”

The photographer Max T. Vargas in Bolivia

Martin Chambi is considered the most important Peruvian photographer of the first half of the twentieth century. This great photographer’s professor was Max (Maximiliano) T. Vargas, who took him as a student in Arequipa, where he had his studio from 1908 until the year 1917.

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