Bolivian Women’s Organizations in the MAS Era

Throughout the 1990s, the Bolivian women’s movement was ideologically polarized between a liberal, NGO-based “gender technocracy” and the anarcha-feminism embodied in the Mujeres Creando (Women Creating) movement. Between them stood the great majority of the country’s female population—a huge contingent of women of indigenous descent living in a colonized condition. Neither the technocratic nor the anarchist tendency considered them the subject of political representation.

September 4, 2007

Throughout the 1990s, the Bolivian women’s movement was ideologically polarized between a liberal, NGO-based “gender technocracy” and the anarcha-feminism embodied in the Mujeres Creando (Women Creating) movement. Between them stood the great majority of the country’s female population—a huge contingent of women of indigenous descent living in a colonized condition. Neither the technocratic nor the anarchist tendency considered them the subject of political representation.

Today, the correlation of forces that predominated until recently is beginning to change. This is largely the result of the starring role played by women’s grassroots organizations in the social mobilizations that destabilized the neoliberal order. That upheaval launched a new period in Bolivia’s political history, one best characterized as the era of “indigenous nationalism.” Since the inauguration of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, these indigenous women’s groups (both rural and urban) have come to be perceived as the legitimate representatives of large women’s majorities. At the same time, the women’s movement has significantly realigned its political stances vis-à-vis the challenges of decolonization and radical democratization represented in the platform of Morales’ party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS).

The NGO Movement: Gender Technocracy

The term gender technocracy was coined by autonomous Latin American feminists as a useful concept to differentiate the elite of professional women associated with NGOs working on gender-related issues from what they considered an authentic feminist movement, struggling from a fundamentally anti-patriarchal position. Bolivia’s gender technocracy was born in the mid-1980s, when international cooperation funds for development projects with a “gender approach” became available. This signaled the export of the liberal version of northern-hemisphere feminism—hegemonic since its institutionalization in the United Nations—to peripheral countries through bi- and multilateral development cooperation programs. In fact, the regulating discourse of “gender and development” was made possible thanks to the cooperation agencies’ solid institutional resources and their capacity to permeate state policies in peripheral countries. This partly explains why gender technocracy’s discourse has been unable to this day to address grassroots women’s consciousness, and even less to address the state from the “bottom up,” with demands that represent the majority of women’s interests and aspirations as women.

As NGOs arrived on the political scene, a new form of mediation developed between civil society and the state. Grassroots organizations increasingly became the “beneficiaries” of NGO projects, while NGOs began to identify themselves as “representatives” of civil society to the state and cooperation agencies. This was the case of NGOs such as Fundación San Gabriel and Caritas Bolivia, which operated food aid programs. Other NGOs, such as Fundación Tierra, Instituto Politécnico Tupak Katari and El Centro de Promoción de la Mujer Gregoria Apaza (CPMGA), also appeared in this period. (1)

Gender technocracy was organized along two axes: a state regulating body and the women’s NGOs that worked closely with it. Together they played a key role in framing the discourse of gender inequality as—solely—a matter of state management. That is why women’s NGOs increasingly took on a quasi-public-sector role, a development that took place in the context of “democratization” after the fall of the 1970s military regimes. This helped legitimize what was in fact a co-optation of the movements by the neoliberal state.

The main characteristic of the women’s NGO movement is that it builds its demands on the principles of UN conventions, rather than on a dialogue with Bolivian women about their needs. Gender technocracy thus differs from the rest of women’s organizations because its main goal has not been to confront specific relations of gender subordination in Bolivia, but rather to mitigate the poor life conditions of marginal women through short-term programs that follow UN dictates. “Influencing state policies from a gender and development perspective”—as the mission statements of practically all the gender NGOs put it—has been the real goal, yet the question of where this influence, and its legitimacy, would come from was never debated, either by the gender technocracy or by the cooperation agencies; no such debate was required as long as the technocracy was thought of as “representing” women’s interests and demands.

By accommodating the political style of each administration, the technocratic NGOs ended up endorsing the government’s social programs, beginning with the structural-adjustment package implemented in 1985. Most of them also offered near unconditional support for the popular participation project launched by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 1995, which obliged social organizations to reorganize on a territorial basis, in close relationship with municipal-level political party structures, thus removing their autonomy and denaturalizing them. This was also the case with microenterprise policies, which decreased the value of labor power (that is, they depressed salaries), particularly that of the female workforce.

Finally, we have the problem of reducing women’s political participation to a matter of power quotas within formal political structures. Within the framework of Sánchez de Lozada’s reforms, the gender technocracy launched an aggressive campaign to require that 30% of all candidates in national and municipal elections be women. The quota worked to consolidate male leadership within the political parties’ patriarchal structures, rather than to actually promote the representation of women’s interests. Elite urban women linked to the leadership of right-wing parties mainly benefited. Indigenous women’s leadership, in contrast, emerged from social movements that have become political parties, including the MAS and the Movimiento Indígena Pachacuti. (2)

Thus, the class nature of gender technocracy reveals itself in two basic dimensions: First, as part of the NGO conglomerate, it has played an important role in legitamizing neoliberal policies. Second, it has maintained a strategic alliance with the neoliberal state and international cooperation agencies—an alliance key to its survival—obligating gender NGOs to define their roles very little in relation to civil society and women, or to women’s interests, needs and aspirations.

There is, however, a third aspect of gender technocracy’s class nature that has only lately manifested, and is now possible to name, in the current context of changing correlation of forces between mestizo and colonized society—a context that typifies the MAS era. (By “colonized society,” I refer to the population of predominantly indigenous heritage, which according to the last census of 2002, represents 62.2% of Bolivia’s population.) I will develop this point further in the last section of this article.

During the neoliberal period, the political parties gave birth to new women’s political organizations that were closely aligned with the gender technocracy, such as the Foro Político de Mujeres (Women’s Political Forum), the Asociación de Mujeres Parlamentarias (Association of Congresswomen ) and the Asociación de Concejalas de Bolivia (Association of Councilwomen of Bolivia). These groups’ aim was to promote the rights of women elected to public offices. They typically reproduced the ethnic and class divisions of traditional political parties.

The Mujeres Creando Movement and the Feminist Assembly

At the other end of the spectrum of the women’s movement, we find the anarcha-feminist movement Mujeres Creando, situated generally within the autonomous Latin American feminist camp. Autonomy here is defined in terms of the state and political parties (according to the principle of “no to co-optation”) and NGOs (“no to mediation”). Consistent with this autonomist position, the movement has followed an independent and unique path with regard to the processes of political reconfiguration and policy making. Its actions derive from a politics of the everyday-private, and they seek to make an impact both at the macro-level of structural problems, and at the level of the microphysics of power, in which collective subjectivities are structured and power and domination find a privileged space of reproduction and legitimacy. The movement is remarkable for its strategy, based on deconstructing symbols and languages of patriarchal domination in a context of internal colonialism. Its weapons range from graffiti, television shows and the press to silent theater, poetry and workshops.

The movement was key in sustaining two of the most important colonized women’s mobilizations: the women coca growers’ march of 1995 and the microcredit women debtors’ mobilization of 1999. In both cases Café Carcajada, the headquarters of Mujeres Creando, served as a space to strategize and as a lodge for women who arrived from different parts of the country. (3) Though small in membership, this movement has a far ideological reach and remains the only one in Bolivia that advances its political demands from a standpoint of gender subalternity. Mujeres Creando has contributed greatly to naming patriarchy as a specific form of domination that Bolivian society at large cannot yet recognize in its true dimensions.

Having rejected any kind of long-lasting alliances and stable structure, the movement must now work with other sectors of mobilized women. The Feminist Assembly, founded in 2004, has been working to join forces with the women of indigenous and peri-urban organizations; it proposes to be a parallel to the Constituent Assembly.

The Bartolina Sisa National Federation of Peasant Women

From nonfeminist positions and at the margin of the gender-and-development discourse, there exist important women’s organizations within the major contemporary social movements. The most salient are the Federación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Bartolina Sisa (the Bartolina Sisa National Federation of Bolivian Peasant Women, or FNMCB-BS by its Spanish acronym) and the neighborhood councils. Although the latter comprises both men and women, its members are mostly women; both are made up of indigenous-descended women to a greater or lesser degree.

Born in the late 1970s within the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (the Sole Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia, or CSUTCB), the Bartolina Sisa Federation stands out as the only organization of indigenous women in the country. It is also the most important women’s organization, not only because as part of the indigenous and peasant movement it has made the most radical demands on the colonialist state, but also because it represents the largest section of the women’s movement, with a membership that reaches over 100,000 women and a trade-union structure that reaches from the national executive directors to community-level producer’s associations.

Since its creation, the Federation has been torn between an autonomist and an integrationist trend—in reference to the CSUTCB’s sexist ideology and patriarchal structures—a conflict that has taken its political toll and resulted in a significant loss in membership from which the group has recovered only in recent years. The Federation might well have separated from the CSUTCB, had it not been for its deliberate choice in 2004 to “stay with its brothers in the struggle for decolonization,” as some Federation executives said in a recent interview with the author.

This women’s organization is in the vanguard of the indigenous movement, being one of the nine organizations that founded the Pacto de Unidad (Covenant for Unity) in June 2006. The FNMCB-BS brings together peasant women from different sectors of agricultural production and is based on a solid organizational structure throughout Bolivia’s nine departments (national territories analogous to states in the U.S. or provinces in Canada).

Having been an anti-systemic organization under previous political regimes, the FNMCB-BS is now entering a conciliatory phase vis-à-vis the state. This partly results from government initiatives to establish a direct dialogue with social movements and their grassroots organizations. Policies in this direction are currently being developed by the Presidential Ministry and the recently created Vice Ministry of Coordination With Social Movements.

The Neighborhood Councils Movement

Besides the indigenous movement, the second outstanding movement in Bolivia’s contemporary history is that of the neighborhood councils. The councils represent that intermediary social category standing between the urban and the rural, comprising a large sector of indigenous people who are becoming urbanized. Having emerged from the territorial restructuring policies of neoliberal reforms, the councils have ironically taken a leading role in building demands for radical social change through a “politics of basic needs” that is closely connected to a powerful discourse of nationalization. This began with the Water War of 2000 and was later reasserted in the October 2003 uprising known as the Gas War. Together with the peasant and indigenous movement, the neighborhood councils in the western cities of La Paz and El Alto played a key role in the wave of mobilizations that both put an end to the neoliberal administrations of Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa and resulted in the popular demand for early elections and Morales’ victory in January 2006.

The confluence of the neighborhood movement’s basic-needs politics with the demands for indigenous sovereignty (such as refounding the state through a constituent assembly, new territorial divisions and redistributing land) has resulted in a new kind of nationalism that imagines an indigenous form of citizenship built on reappropriating natural resources for the benefit of Bolivians. It is precisely in the two key elements of nationalization and indigenous identity that the two movements, neighborhood and indigenous, find common ground for decolonization. (4) Both the women of the neighborhood councils and of the FNMCB-BS speak from the standpoint of the ethnic subaltern. Using a discourse of decolonization, they advocate an “indigenous” subject vis-à-vis a state that has reproduced colonial social relations between a mestizo society and an indigenous one. This is changing who gets to represent women’s interests and demands, with that role rapidly shifting to women’s grassroots organizations, while the NGO technocracy is losing its legitimacy.

The Impact of the MAS Government on Women’s Organizations

Morales’ rise to power has no doubt had a strong impact on Bolivian society. A realignment of forces is under way, as distinct social sectors respond differently to a process of decolonization that implies a qualitative change in relations between mestizo and colonized society. This is related not only to changes in the correlation of forces among the traditionally dominant classes, but also with nationalization, land redistribution and—for the technocratic political class—the loss of monopoly over the institutions and its concurrent loss of prestige. In this framework, the loss of symbolic and material power in some social sectors becomes evident. For the women’s movement this means a real change in the correlation of forces between mestizo women’s organizations and indigenous-based (urban and/or rural) women’s organizations. It is a critical moment for the technocratic middle class, particularly the NGOs, partly because their legitimacy is being seriously questioned, but also because they have resisted—rather than adjusted to—the new state of affairs. NGOs refuse to accept that decolonization implies at least the partial renouncement of the mediating role they have played between the state and civil society. However, their greatest fear probably lies in the possibility of finding themselves on an equal footing with their beneficiaries, with a government that favors direct dialogue with grassroots organizations.

Some NGOs are attempting to reorganize clearly counterrevolutionary projects. This is the case of We Bet for Bolivia, a project that was initially created during the transitional phase of the Mesa administration to stamp the Constituent Assembly with a “constitutional” agenda that radically differed from social movements’ “foundational” proposals. Put together by four traditional NGOs, (5) We Bet for Bolivia has now relaunched with the new aim of gaining “social control over the revenues of nationalized hydrocarbons” with the support of the Revenue Watch Institute, a U.S. organization. These programs signal that NGOs will not easily renounce their mediating role, even if they have to seek legitimacy from external circuits.

Beyond today’s potential opportunities for women’s grassroots organizations, there remains the issue of linking the national-decolonizing project advocated by these organizations with the patriarchal emancipation project proposed from relatively isolated—but not irrelevant—feminist positions, such as those of Mujeres Creando, the Feminist Assembly and, with significant differences, the author of this text herself. Women’s organizations in Bolivia are still conservative, and it is not clear up to what point they will adopt a double claim of gender and ethnic subordination, although this may well be possible within the FNMCB-BS. To a great extent this will depend on the ability of the women in these movements to think critically about the gender dimension of power and democracy. It will also depend on the efforts and initiatives of the (few) feminists who work in this milieu, and—largely—on whether grassroots organizations such as the FNMCB-BS, the neighborhood councils and new groups will gain access to real resources.

There is no doubt that women’s organizations’ autonomy within social movements is a fundamental issue. If efforts do not converge in this direction, their participation will remain critical for mobilizing, but invisible in terms of decision making and political leadership. Strategic gender needs6 will be indefinitely postponed as long debates on the topic fail to address the issue of internal colonialism and its reproduction mechanisms. There is still much work to be done in order to achieve this articulation. What is clear is that emancipation from patriarchy in Bolivia is not unrelated to emancipation from internal colonialism, since it is precisely in its fabric where gender identity and ethnic subordination are simultaneously constituted. Indeed, this topic remains largely unexplored.


1. The CPMGA and Fundación La Paz are specifically women’s NGOs, while the others include a gender component in their development projects. As a church institution, Caritas is the oldest.

2. See Karin Monasterios P. and Luis Tapia, Partidos y participación política de las mujeres de El Alto (La Paz: Centro de Promoción de la Mujer Gregoria Apaza, 2001).

3. A thorough account of Mujeres Creando’s mobilization strategies and its philosophical positions can be found in a paper I presented at the XXIV International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (2003). The paper, titled “La tecnocracia de género y el feminismo autónomo de Mujeres Creando: Los extravíos de la representación de las mujeres en Bolivia y los desafíos de la acción directa,” represents the first attempt from academia to theorize the work of Mujeres Creando.

4. For further discussions on this topic, see Álvaro García Linera, “La crisis de estado y las sublevaciones indígena-plebeyas,” in Alvaro García Linera, Raúl Prada and Luis Tapia, eds., Memorias de Octubre (La Paz: Muela del Diablo, 2004).

5. I am referring to Fundación Tierra, CPMGA, Acción Cultural Loyola and the Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado. The last two are closely tied to the Catholic Church in Bolivia.

6. Strategic gender needs are those that allow women to challenge their subordination within the gendered division of labor and gendered structures of power more generally, and range from equal rights legislation to reproductive choice. See Maxine Molyneux, “Mobilisation Without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, State and Revolution in Nicaragua,” in David Slater, ed., New Social Movements and the State in Latin America (Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1985), 233–259.

Karin Monasterios P. is a sociologist and, until recently, a women’s studies professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, in La Paz, Bolivia. She is now an adviser on indigenous and gender issues to the Morales government. This article is an updated version of “The Women’s Movement,” which originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Barataria, a quarterly journal based in La Paz.


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