A Plan for Women’s Rights for a New Bolivia

Teresa Lanza and Gladys Melo-Pinzon

As countries around the world celebrated International Women's Day last week, the Bolivian government launched a new equal rights and opportunities plan for women.

As countries around the world celebrated International Women’s
Day last week, the Bolivian government launched an equal rights and
opportunities plan dubbed "Mujeres
construyendo la Nueva Bolivia
para vivir bien," which can be loosely translated as "women are building a new Bolivia with
better lives for all." Not simply a development strategy, this plan
exemplifies a significant, shared vision: namely the importance of recognizing
women’s contributions to the ongoing development of the country.

The plan is the culmination of a lengthy process of compromise between
the Bolivian government and women’s NGOs from all parts of Bolivia,
including Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir in Bolivia, a partner organization
of Catholics for Choice. All parties met with the common goal of creating a
long term strategy aimed at tackling the problems that continue to plague Bolivia,
especially those related to women.

Certainly one such problem is the prohibition of abortion. Currently,
the Bolivian Penal Code permits the right to abortion in cases of rape, incest
and when a woman’s life or health is in danger. However, the law states
that a judicial authorization must be obtained before a woman is allowed to
have an abortion. As a result of long delays in the authorization process,
women have been unable to access safe and legal abortions. Statistics speak of
the "death of a life-giving body" – a euphemism describing
the many women who die from pregnancy complications, birth and unsafe abortion
each day. Until this statistical measure becomes obsolete, change will not have
occurred.

As in many other countries with similarly strong Catholic roots, the
hierarchy of the Catholic church plays a leading role in seeking to block
advancements in women’s rights, especially those pertaining to sexual and
reproductive health. That notwithstanding, a 2003 survey conducted by Catholics
for Choice and Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir in Bolivia shows that a
majority of Bolivians support access to reproductive health services. The
numbers speak for themselves: 66 percent of Bolivian Catholics support access
to abortion services and 81 percent believe that one can use contraception and
still be a good Catholic.

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This initiative is a political gain but the plan will not propel change
on its own. Change will emerge only when people claim greater responsibility
and recognize what this process means for Bolivia. As evidenced by the
numbers, Bolivian Catholics are ready for such change even if the church
hierarchy is not. This is a crucial moment: an opportunity for Bolivia
to establish new dialogues and emerge as a country in which women’s rights are honored and respected.

Delegates from Bolivia
will travel to the United Nations Commission on Population and Development,
meeting at the end of March in New
York City, where they plan to share their strategy.
Catholics for Choice will also be present at that meeting, providing a useful
counter to the church hierarchy’s dismissal of reproductive rights.
Consistent commitment to women’s rights on a global scale will enable us
to honor women all year round – not just on one single day or at one event.

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