Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Megan's Blog in English. Childhood and Youth Empowerment Team Bolivia.

Much of our work with ChildFund involves planning educational modules to be delivered at children’s centres around La Paz (and by other groups in children’s centres in other Bolivian cities). Myself and fellow volunteer Fiona have been specifically working on activities and lesson plans for various girls’ children’s centres, focused on empowering girls in leadership and sport, and teaching them about peace culture.

We are also currently working on reading, revising and translating an extensive Sexual and Reproductive Health module document which provides a wealth of information and activities to be used by teachers in children’s centres. The activities are targeted to three age groups and on a variety of important subjects, with the stated aim of the document being to improve the children’s knowledge in order to reduce their vulnerability to violence, peer pressure and illness.

The importance of education in preventing violence, particularly against woman and girls, cannot be overstated. It is necessary to empower children to understand their rights, personal boundaries and choices, and to be able to recognise when they are being exploited or abused. It is also incredibly important to teach children from a young age how to respect each other’s boundaries and to understand the importance of consent in all interpersonal relationships.

Role models are also highly influential in children’s understanding of how to behave and how relationships ought to be, and perhaps no adult provides a more central role model than mothers do. Unfortunately, however, Bolivia has the highest level of violence against women in Latin America, a fact which certainly affects the messages and education that children receive about relationships and equality. It’s also very difficult to raise happy, healthy, educated children in an abusive home environment, which is a problem worldwide, given that the vast majority of violence against women everywhere is perpetrated by family members.

Upon first exploring the city of La Paz, we noticed huge posters hanging from university buildings and in other popular areas that proclaim in red and white letters: ‘Alto a la violencia contra las mujeres’. This government campaign was started following the murder of Bolivian journalist Hanalí Huaycho, allegedly by her police officer husband, which brought the issue of violence against women to the fore of media reports and political agendas. A crowd of women protesting about the issue outside President Evo Morales’s house were tear gassed by police, even though the crowd included female government ministers.

Although the campaign seems mostly to consist of these posters, murals on the same theme and occasional discussion on television (there is no campaign website to be found and little coverage in newspapers), the awareness raised could certainly have a positive effect on attitudes in the country. Less than a month after Huaycho’s murder, the government passed a new, comprehensive law to combat violence against women. Despite being imperfect in various ways, it’s a considerable improvement on previous legislation (where suggested sentences were very short and spousal rape was not considered a crime).

However, it must be asked why it takes the high profile death of a famous female journalist to provoke change, when Bolivian women have been suffering from violence for so much time. It must especially be noted that poor and indigenous women in various countries are consistently at higher risk of gender-based discrimination and violence, due to the lack of access to healthcare, education, and funds for infrastructure in order to enforce laws. Poverty, commonly found in rural Bolivian areas, is also a common factor in problems of domestic violence. Perhaps Bolivia could benefit from a project similar to the Save Wiyabi Map, created by Native American activist Lauren Chief Elk in order to record the disappearances and murders of indigenous women (which the government did little about).

Nevertheless, it is impressive that in a “third-world country” there is a government campaign and a  new law attempting to combat violence against women, while in the UK, domestic violence shelters are being closed across the country because of brutal cuts in government funding (31% of funding to domestic and sexual violence services has been cut). Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of domestic violence charity Refuge, points out that “Two women are killed every week in [the UK] by a current or former partner – a statistic which remains unchanged for a decade”. It is not difficult to understand why there has been no improvement in the levels of violence against women when the government cuts funding to essential services and there is still no mandatory sex and relationship education in any schools or universities.

With this ongoing crisis in my own country, it is extremely gratifying to be putting my hard work into trying to improve the situation for women and children in Bolivia through education. If we can educate the younger generations in how to maintain healthy relationships and fight against gender inequality, then perhaps we can expect to see societal and legal change that will make a real difference. I can only hope that eventually something similar will be achieved in the UK.

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