No alcohol, no violence: life inside the Bolivian community led by women
The barrio of Maria Auxiliadora slopes up one of the many hills in the dusty mountain bowl surrounding Cochabamba, Bolivia. Visually, there is little to distinguish it from the other barrios of the city’s working-class southern periphery: it’s a melting pot of one-room brick houses and building sites.
Despite its innocuous appearance, a remarkable history sets this neighbourhood apart: since 1999, Maria Auxiliadora has worked to create a safe environment free from domestic violence, under the leadership of women. Families wishing to live there have to abide by the rules established in the community: no sales of alcohol, and no gender-based attacks.
“Women tell me, ‘When we lived elsewhere he used to hit me, but with the rules here, he’s forgotten about drinking and never touched me again,’” says Rose Mary Irusta Perez, one of Maria Auxiliadora’s founders.
This community is in many ways an oasis for women in a patriarchal society that has witnessed far too many acts of femicide. In the first two days of 2017, Special Force Against Violence – a police force launched in June 2013 to take care of gender-based abuses – registered two acts of femicide. According to the Bolivian attorney general’s office as quoted in Humanosphere, 94 women were killed last year, and 93 killed in 2015.
Though President Evo Morales’ administration passed a law in 2013, in order to stop intimate partner violence and penalise the abusers, with femicide punishable by 30 years in prison, only one-fifth of cases have resulted in prison sentences, according to Bolivia’s national newspaper, La Razón.
For almost two decades, the people of Maria Auxiliadora have taken the issue into their own hands. The community was founded by five women, and its leadership roles, president and vice-president, are always filled by women. The founders came up with the idea of Maria Auxiliadora while working on a committee on intrafamily violence and reproductive health, as a way to help families escape the pressures of living in precarious rented accommodation with abusive landlords. The community’s land is collectively owned and cannot be sold for profit, so prices remain affordable to low-income families and guarantees them a stable home.
The 420 families who live there are helped by a community-managed support committee if couples experience relationship problems. There have been open workshops educating women about different types of domestic violence, such as psychological and financial abuse. And since its inception, four men have been removed from the community because they continued to beat their families.
From her grocery shop at the top of the hill, Teodocia Vallejos can see right across Cochabamba to the city’s Jesus statue. She sells flour from plastic sacks and cooking oil from a huge yellow drum – a marked change from the 16-hour shifts she used to do at a cheap restaurant.
She says workshops and support have helped her to overcome her husband’s psychological abuse. “I used to be shy. My husband would scold me and all I did was cry,” she says. “I used to stay quiet, but now I’ve learned. I’ve been to a lot of workshops to be the way I am today.”
Miguel Gonzales, executive director of Cochabamba anti-domestic violence organisation Infante says many Bolivians still view violence as limited to physical aggression. “There are levels of domestic violence that are not recognised as such by either the victim or the aggressor, even though they are typified as violence in law,” he says. “It’s very complicated for social workers to visit houses and resolve conflicts, but it is possible for the community to organise and resolve these sorts of conflicts.”
Although Maria Auxiliadora does not have formal statistics demonstrating the reduction in domestic violence, its success is widely perceived by the residents and has been recognised on an international level. The community was a finalist in the 2008 World Habitat Awards, run by Building and Social Housing Foundation in partnership with UN Habitat. The nomination explicitly recognised the project’s success in reducing domestic violence and promoting female leadership in a traditionally patriarchal culture.
Resident Gumercindo Parraga Camacho has seen attitudes evolve since he first moved to Maria Auxiliadora 15 years ago. He says that at first, men in the community resented that the leaders were always women, but they have grown to accept it.
“Some men say that men are more capable than women, but it’s the other way round,” he says. “Women are better at talking, at convincing. Men are more direct with things.”
Parraga Camacho has witnessed every time a man has been evicted from the community. In one case, it happened after a woman’s husband bit off a piece of her eyebrow in a violent attack. “Everyone went to her house and brought her husband out and had him thrown out of the community,” he says. “The whole community went. It was community work.”
He believes violence in one’s own home is taboo among men; he has never heard friends talk about beating their families.
Though Maria Auxiliadora has made significant strides, over the past five years, rifts over property ownership in the community have made it harder to pursue projects and unite people against domestic violence. The family support committee is not as active as it used to be, and Irusta Perez is worried that this has allowed violence to creep back into some households. But she remains determined: “As long as I’m still here, we’ll keep on going, won’t we?”