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Bolivia tackles gender equality in government

LA PAZ, Bolivia - (AP) — After reinventing Bolivia's government to reflect the country's multi-ethnic, Indian majority, President Evo Morales is championing gender parity at the highest levels of government.

Women now account for half of Bolivia's Cabinet ministers — 10 out of 20 — as Morales embarks on his second term following his Jan. 22 swearing-in ceremony.

Announcing the changes, Bolivia's first Indian president called the new arrangement "fifty-fifty" — or "Chacha Warmi," a Quechua-language reference to the indigenous principle of two complementing sexes as the basis of equilibrium in the cosmos.

"We must weave a patchwork of regions, sectors of society and gender, and that combination is not easy," Morales said.

Cabinets with gender parity are no longer a novelty in the region. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet had one and influential female ministers are common across Latin America. And none of Bolivia's female ministers yet belongs to the president's inner circle of most trusted and influential advisers.

But the gender shift has shocked a country where Indians, and especially indigenous women, have long been treated as second-class citizens.

Nemecia Achacollo, a 39-year-old mother and grandmother who rose through farmworkers unions, was tapped to become minister of land and rural development just days after she became a member of congress.

"Fifteen days ago I took office as a lawmaker and now I'm a (Cabinet) minister," said Achacollo, who already accompanied Morales on a diplomatic mission to Venezuela. "I still can't digest so many changes in so few days."

Morales has broken a long tradition of presidents from the Bolivian elite as the nation's first leader from the indigenous majority. His political movement forged a new constitution that gives Bolivia's 36 ethnic groups the right to self-determination at the municipal level.

The new constitution also speaks of gender equality in the Cabinet, but few expected the president to apply it immediately as he tapped new ministers from all walks of life.

At a photo session for the new Cabinet, men and women in black and pink power suits stood next to indigenous women in traditional "pollera" skirts, knit shawls and hats — each unique to a different area of Bolivia.

The president of the Senate is a woman. Another heads up Customs, the public institution that is most vulnerable to corruption. The chief of ruling party representatives in congress is a woman. In all, women occupy 28 percent of congressional seats and 47 percent in the senate.

But women still have difficulty advancing in local government, according to the Bolivian Association of City Councilors. On the municipal level, there are 25 women among 327 mayors and 327 of 1,671 council members are female.

Electoral slates are required to be 50 percent women, but parties have found ways of skirting the law.

Beyond the halls of government, Bolivian women often confront grinding poverty and a bleak lack of opportunity.

Until 1952, women — like Indians — were not allowed to vote. Until recently, they could not inherit land or have their names on the title to farmland unless they were married or widowed.

"That has been changed under this government, because it was wrong," Achacollo said.

A land redistribution program created during Morales' first term granted 10,300 property titles to women between 2006 and 2008, or roughly one in three titles.

But a proposed law against gender harassment and violence has failed to gain traction during four years before congress, and even ruling party legislators have opposed it.

In recent history, women dissidents and activists have been catalysts for major political events.

In 1978, six wives of exiled mine union leaders went on a hunger strike and thousands joined their cause demanding the return of hundreds of exiled political and labor leaders. The movement is credited with forcing the de facto president, Gen. Hugo Banzer, to declare an amnesty — and with bringing about the return of democracy after 14 years of military rule.

In 1980, women banded together to create the Bartolina Sisa Federation of Indigenous Peasant Women to foster union and political activities. Two women in Morales' new Cabinet, including Achacollo, came from its ranks.

"We still have men who don't want women to participate, but we have fought against that and here we are with more power than ever," said Leonilda Zurita, a former coca growers leader who is now head of the Bartolina Sisa women's group.

The United Nations has begun giving aid to foster management and public policy skills among women and Bolivia's Indian population, and Morales has created a public school with the same goal.

"There's no school for being president or a (Cabinet) minister," Morales said. "The school is in the permanent debate with social forces."

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