By Caterina Gut
Caterina, is a Women’s Centre staff member (currently on a travel leave) who is backpacking through South America.
Dear women of the Women’s Centre,
Feliz Día de la Mujer Boliviana! Belated Happy Bolivian Women’s Day!
I was thinking about the Women’s Centre on October 11, 2011 while I was traveling through La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia. As I was walking through the market, a female street seller approached me to tell me that today was Día de la Mujer, or in English, Bolivian Women’s Day.
The woman told me that a lot of offices will be closed in the afternoon because it Women´s Day. Women employed in the Bolivian public service get half a day off for this day, however, only a small minority of women in Bolivia work in the public service. The majority of women seem to be self-employed and running their own small business. Often, they sell fruit, vegetables, juices, snacks and all kinds of small items on the street corners. Their work days are probably much longer than eight hours; they are outside rain or shine, often inhaling polluted air all day long. However, these women who do some of the hardest work didn´t seem to benefit from this half day off.
I asked this street seller if there was anything she would like to see changed in the life of Bolivian women. She shook her head ‘no’ and said that she thinks Bolivian women have a good life and they have everything they need. She then wanted to know if there´s a Women’s Day in Canada. I told her that we celebrate International Women`s Day, however, it wasn’t an official holiday ad we didn´t get time off work. She looked at me and said: ‘You see, Bolivia is a free country and the situation of women in Bolivia is as good as the situation of women in Canada’. I was impressed with the answer of this woman street seller who didn´t think that the lives of Bolivian were particularly bad.
Later on, I was told that Bolivian Día de la Mujer is not very tightly connected to women´s issues and that it is more a day when people show important women in their lives their love and appreciation. Indeed, I observed how a lot of people bought flowers which they then gave as presents to their mothers, partners, and sisters – almost like Valentine´s Day in Canada.
Despite the street seller’s praise for Bolivia; I have also noticed that women here face many challenges. A high percentage of the population lives in poverty with inadequate housing and sanitation. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America.
Poverty affects human population groups in varying ways, according to gender and ethnic origin. Indigenous and rural inhabitants and, amongst these, children, adolescents and women, are the groups most affected by poverty and exclusion. They are the most vulnerable.
Just a day after Día de la Mujer, we hiked by a women´s shelter in a very rural area outside of La Paz for women fleeing violence. A lot of women also work very hard at unsafe jobs such as street sellers. Often they carry their children on their backs all day long, wrapped in a traditional Bolivian cloth. Children seem to spend a lot of time with their mothers even if the mother is working. We saw a lot of kids doing homework or playing on the floor of their parents business. Children also help their parents at work starting from a very young age. It seems that often before, after, and maybe even during school time they help out at their parents business, maybe missing out on time to play or do homework.
I am spending my last few days in Bolivia at the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world´s largest high altitude lake at 3800 meters above sea level, before we cross the border to Peru. I hope I will come across more interesting stories and facts about women in Peru. Hasta luego!