Articulaciones Feministas: Contemporary Bolivian Feminisms and the Struggle against Gender Violence

Abstract: Bolivian women-led political activism has historically been predominantly characterized by class–based women’s organizations, feminist civil society, and autonomous feminist groups. Since 2013, Bolivian feminists have mobilized around gender-based violence to create an articulation that challenges historical molds of feminist organizing. In this article, I argue that while the emergent movement has not completely overcome the separations of the past, with especially salient discursive and strategic tensions between self-identified autonomous feminists and the gender technocracy, a coalition-building process around the issue of gender-based violence has disrupted some of these divisions and created space for new kinds of feminist networks. Through a series of key moments and local and transnational articulations, a common struggle against gender-based violence has united Bolivian feminists in unexpected ways. Through ethnographic methods, my project seeks to contextualize contemporary Bolivian feminisms, relate the story of the past decade of feminist activism through the eyes of the activists who have shared their perspectives with me, and argue that a shared struggle against gender-based violence has allowed Bolivian feminists to create an innovative movement that holds challenging tensions between coalition-building and depoliticization.


“En Bolivia, la marea feminista ha surgido del hartazgo, de dolor, la ira y la nausea ante la acumulación de casos de violencia física y sexual extrema que quedan en la impunidad. El espectáculo horroroso de los cuerpos de mujeres torturadas, mutiladas y violadas, y la impotencia ante un sistema que encubre a los perpetradores y retrasa—o directamente niega—la justicia a las victimas, han empujado a cientos de mujeres a tomar a las calles, a organizarse para defenderse y establecer alianzas con otros grupos (como los de las mujeres trans). Se han convocado en juzgados, plazas y universidades, en las puertas de las iglesias, las alcaldías, la Casa Grande y el Palacio de Justicia para dejar en claro que no nos callamos más, porque—como dice Cristina Rivera Garza—todos hemos perdido mucho con el silencio de las mujeres” (Colanzi 2019, 14).[1]

In March 2018, United Nations Women in Bolivia hosted an “Art Week” in La Paz for their HeForShe campaign. The week involved a series of artistic events throughout the city and culminated in a conference at an expensive hotel in downtown La Paz. This event, meant to celebrate the progress made, the funds raised, and the awareness brought to women’s issues in Bolivia over the course of the past year, was interrupted by a protest led by anarchist-feminist collective Mujeres Creando. The activists carried a large banner reading “Basta del despilfarro en nuestro nombre!”[2] and chanted out the names of victims of feminicide,[3] who they say were murdered as a result of the same patriarchal system that funds events like this one (Alanoca 2018). UN Women and Mujeres Creando share a stated goal: they both want to put an end to violence against women in Bolivia. Even so, as demonstrated by this particular moment of conflict, there are tangible tensions in the ways in which they understand the problem of gender violence and articulate responses to it.

This moment, and others like it, are what urged my inquiry into contemporary Bolivian feminisms. I was curious about the capacities of a movement with these serious tensions, especially in a small country where feminist networks—formal and informal alike—have such high importance. I started to ask questions about the kinds of compromises that were and were not being made in the name of coalition building, and the role that the increasing rates of gender-based violence in particular were playing in the emergent movement. More than anything else, I was interested in the huge gap that I saw between UN Women and Mujeres Creando, which seemed impenetrable because no one appeared to be writing or talking about it, and because the voices on either end seemed so loud. I hope to relay a small part of what I learned during my time in Bolivia through this project. Though I engaged with only a sliver of that space in between, I learned so much about the contemporary landscape of Bolivian feminist activism. In this article, I show that feminist activists in La Paz are using a common struggle around gender violence to create a new space of articulation for an emergent movement. This is not a space in which the discursive and strategic tensions between feminist civil society and autonomous feminists disappear; in fact, in some ways they are more salient than ever. Rather, it has provided new opportunities for engaging with difference through intentional dialogue and building coalitions, however strained they may be.

My project’s contributions lie at the nexus of two fields of study. First, relative to the size of the country, there is a large and ever-growing field dealing with Bolivian social movements, contemporary and historical. These works date from June Nash’s We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us (1979) to more contemporary works from historians, anthropologists, and sociologists such as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Ben Dangl, Brooke Larson, Alison Spedding, Denise Arnold, Karin Monasterios, Javier Sanjines, Thomas Grisaffi, Bret Gustafson, Stéphanie Rousseau, and many others. To varying degrees, many of these scholars attend to the role of women in Bolivian social movements. However, women are rarely at the center of these narratives, due to either scholarly bias or the masculinist compositions of the movements themselves. Compared to the amount of work that has been done on social movements in Bolivia, there is very little work explicitly focusing on Bolivian feminist movements. My project seeks to engage directly with feminist movements. In the Bolivian context, that means engaging with social movements as well.

My project is also intimately engaging with issues of gender-based violence, and particularly feminicide, through the ways in which feminist and women activists are responding to these issues in relation to the state and each other. Although the project is not strictly about violence, it pivots around the axis of gender-based violence in its structural and interpersonal forms as seen through the eyes of the activists I interviewed. Violence can have a politicizing effect on those who are impacted by it, whether directly, vicariously, or tangentially. As Sayak Valencia puts it, “the ferocity of gore capitalism leaves us with no other options besides the creation of new political subjects for feminism” (Valencia 2018, 258). This politicization in the face of violence has certainly been the case for my own activism, as it has been for many of the women who shared their thoughts and experiences with me. For this reason, and because it is critical to understanding emergent feminist articulations, it is important to ground the discussion that follows in the situation of gender-based violence in Bolivia.

As immense of a problem as it is, gender-based violence in Bolivia remains severely understudied. The data that we do have, however, show that Bolivian women face some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the region. According to a 2018 study by Bolivia’s Instituto Nacional de Estadística, 74.7 percent of women who had ever been married or in union had experienced psychological, physical, or sexual violence in the twelve months prior to the survey (“75 de Cada 100 Mujeres Casadas Vivieron Alguna Situación de Violencia” 2018). Where there is a lack of information about the prevalence of gender-based violence at large, feminicide is a slightly different story. Feminicide cases are meticulously counted by Bolivian media and feminist organizations. In 2019 there were 116 reported cases of feminicide in Bolivia, a country of 11 million inhabitants, compared to 128 in 2018 and 109 in 2017, and 26 in 2013 (Coordinadora de la mujer 2018; Corrales 2019). A debate remains about what appear to be increasing rates of feminicides despite the policy measures that have been enacted with the goal of reducing violence against women: is there really more violence, or do increasing awareness and subsequent increases in reporting account for the rising numbers in the statistics? According to one report by el Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer (CIDEM), seventy-five percent of Bolivian women who are in situations of violence do not report (Marca Paco et al. 2015). Taking this into account, it is essential to consider that the human costs of gender-based violence are much higher than the statistics may indicate.



I spent ten weeks between May and July 2019 conducting ethnographic research in Bolivia for this project. My time was spent mostly in the capital city of La Paz, with short trips to Santa Cruz and Sucre. The two primary procedures of my in-person research were audio-recorded interviews with individuals and participant observation at public events. In recruiting participants for interviews, I sought out individuals involved in feminist activism very broadly speaking, ranging from autonomous activists and workers at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to academics and writers. My interviews ranged from unstructured to semi-structured, involving questions that sought to explore the ways in which different actors understand the problem of gender violence, their view of the state of Bolivian feminisms, and the role of their organization or institution in the articulation of a movement more broadly. Throughout the process, I sought to keep these conversations open-ended enough that they would allow those I interviewed to foreground their own perspectives rather than imposing my own ideas about what we should discuss, which resulted in organic and necessary changes to the goals that I had originally set out for myself. In addition to these interviews, I also engaged in many informal conversations about the topic and attended events and marches in La Paz.

I conducted all of my interviews in Spanish, a language that I speak through a combination of formal study, speaking the language at home, and living and studying in both Bolivia and Chile. Spanish is the primary language of everyone I interviewed as well as the primary language in which the organizations and collectives that I discuss conduct their work. In this article, I am amplifying only a small slice of what I have learned from and about the people who took the time to speak with me about their activism. In this way, processes of translation and interpretation are present at every level of this project. In what is by no means a complete picture of contemporary Bolivian women-led activism and is admittedly centered on the urban activism of La Paz, I strive to be as truthful as possible in these interpretations while fully recognizing the shortcomings and impossibilities of translation of this kind. Because I am aware that there are already so many layers of translation and interpretation inherent to this process, I have decided to foreground the words of the activists who shared with me. Additionally, I want to note that I asked each of the women I interviewed for their preferences with regard to how they would be identified in the article. Most individuals wished to be identified by their names. Unless otherwise indicated, the names of individuals and organizations that I utilize throughout this article are real.


Historical Currents of Women-led Political Activism in Bolivia

In order to understand the contemporary moment of Bolivian feminist activism, it is essential to have some understanding of the larger historical, ideological, and geopolitical context of women-led and feminist political activism in Bolivia. I argue that three dominant currents are most salient in the contemporary feminist landscape: 1) class-based women’s political organizations, 2) feminist civil society, and 3) autonomous feminists. These currents do not exist in isolation, but rather come up in response to one another, finding common ground as well as differences that allow them to engage with the state, patriarchy, and coloniality in a variety of different ways. Here, I will briefly discuss each of these currents and indicate how they remain salient in the contemporary moment.

Perhaps the most well-known Bolivian woman of all time, Domitila Barrios de Chungara falls squarely in the category of class-based women’s organizing as a labor activist and an organizer of the Comité de Amas de Casa Mineras del Siglo XX.[4] Famously, Barrios de Chungara and the women who organized with her did not identify as feminists. They saw feminism as an imperial tool leveraged against them by women in the North as well as by bourgeois women in Bolivia itself. After the 1952 revolution, Bolivian laborers began to organize into corporatist structures, making the syndicate the basic unit for political organizing in the country. Seeing that these organizing spaces often were dominated by men and gave little priority to the interests of women, women began to form their own parallel organizational structures. Siglo XX’s Comité de Amas de Casa Mineras is one example of this. Another is la Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Indígenas Originarias de Bolivia—Bartolina Sisa (CNMCIOB-BS or, as they are commonly known, las Bartolinas). Las Bartolinas have remained a very important political force, and with over 100,000 members is by far the largest women’s organization in the country (Monasterios 2007). Since Evo Morales’s inauguration in 2006, they have developed a very close working relationship with the MAS[5] government, which has worked to develop stronger relationships between social movements and the state. Class-based women’s organizations like las Bartolinas provide viable alternatives to the middle-class and urban feminism that has often overtaken the national imagination of what women’s political organizing might encompass. Because of this, they have remained an important part of the mosaic of Bolivian women-led political activism in contemporary Bolivia.

While women were organizing globally around the interlocking issues of gender and class oppression in the 1970s, the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Society for International Development created an Office of Women in Development. This office, established by one of the largest international development networks, marked the first use of the phrase “Women in Development” (WID), which gained popularity over the next twenty years through its use by institutions like USAID, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Bank (Escobar 1995). Paired with the neoliberal reforms of the late ’80s and early ’90s, what became a “feminist” sector of civil society, a space understood as existing between the market and the state, began to emerge in full force, comprising NGOs, IGOs, and various interconnected funding streams from Europe, North America, and the Bolivian state. Thus, the process of “NGO-ization,” in which NGOs increasingly filled the spaces left by the state in the wake of neoliberal reforms, began to take hold (Lang 1997; Alvarez 1999). The term “NGO-ization” is used to refer not only to the proliferation of NGOs filling the role of the state, but also to the ways in which movements have been professionalized. As the capacities of NGOs grow, so too must their funding streams, staffs, and research and programming efforts. To fill these roles, these organizations begin to hire professionals. As the field of women’s and feminist NGOs grows, a gender technocracy is born. The concept of a gender technocracy was first used by autonomous feminist movement Mujeres Creando to refer to the professionalized apparatus that has proliferated within feminist civil society, drawing attention to the labor of elite, professionalized women and drawing a distinction between these women and an authentic anti-patriarchal “movement.”

This leads us to the final category: autonomous feminists. Autonomous feminisms arose in Latin America as a direct reaction to class-based women’s organizing and the gender technocracy, seeing both of these spaces as inherently limiting. Autonomous feminists, then, are defined by their rejection of the dependencies, depoliticization, and co-optation that they saw in class-based organizing and in the gender technocracy. In Bolivia, the largest autonomous feminist movement is Mujeres Creando, founded in 1985 by Maria Galindo and Julieta Paredes. The movement’s founders have identified their form of feminism as an inheritance of the work of indigenous women of the Left in the 1920s and onward, resistance against the dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s, and against the neoliberalism of the 1990s (E. Monasterios 2006). Clearly, the emergence of this movement is deeply interlinked with other currents of women-led political activism. Although these are their influences, although they work to remember and honor the work of their “mothers and grandmothers,” they make it clear that their activism is also a departure from past iterations of Bolivian women-led activism. Their autonomy suggests independence from the state and from the governing parties. Although they are anarchists, Mujeres Creando do not belong to the Left. Although they are feminists, they do not belong to feminist civil society. As I discuss in the next section, the 2010s saw an explosion of small feminist collectives that operated outside the funding spheres of gender NGOs, the state, and political parties. Many of the activists I spoke with see themselves as part of the autonomous current of Bolivian feminism, whether they organize independently or with a collective.

Although I identify three salient currents of Bolivian women-led activism in this section, these are not exhaustive, static, or rigid categories. Some would surely argue that ethnicity is more important than class for women like Domitila Barrios de Chungara or las Bartolinas, or that anarchism is a more useful way to categorize Mujeres Creando than autonomy. The categories presented above are my reading of the major currents of women’s activism in Bolivia based on the secondary literature that I have cited as well as my interviews. I use these categories not as a way to simplify or reduce the complex and multifaceted networks of feminine and feminist activist currents with longstanding precedent in Bolivia. Rather, I hope to use this contextualization to give more meaning to the ways in which these models have been disrupted in recent years, as well as the ways in which they have remained entrenched.


Emergent Feminist Articulations

I arrived in La Paz in late May 2019, at the beginning of what would be the winter with the highest official feminicide count in Bolivian history. Even before my first interview, it became clear that the violence, as well as feminist responses to it, was present in people’s minds. When taxi drivers, acquaintances, or fellow micro riders asked about why I was in town, I would often tell them about my research project, in which I was studying Bolivian feminist movements, violence against women, and the relationships between the two things. I found a shared response among many of the men I told about my project: they often clamped their teeth shut and sucked in a deep breath, grumbling out a few lines about how terrible the situation is, telling me that I’ll have plenty to do here because there’s so much violence. The topic of conversation would quickly shift. Some of the women I encountered responded in the same way, acknowledging the severity of the topic but quickly finding something else to discuss. Others, though, immediately asked me if I had read the graphic details of the latest feminicide case, or if I had read what “la María” had written about it in her weekly editorial for Página Siete.[6] They made reference to friends, friends of friends, employees, or coworkers who had been abused or who knew someone who had been abused. Many of them listed out NGOs that I should meet with and suggested that I listen to Radio Deseo at 11 a.m. on Monday mornings, when Helen Alvarez lists out the names of violent men and absent fathers to hold them publicly accountable. These women were acutely aware not only of the extreme situation of violence in the country, but also of the efforts of activists and institutions to put an end to the problem and hold perpetrators accountable.

As I began conducting interviews with feminist activists, writers, and NGO workers, much of what began to emerge through my interviews resembled, more than anything else, oral histories of the emergent feminist movement. The women I interviewed walked me through their own histories doing this work, the ways in which they have been politicized, and their experiences moving fluidly (and not so fluidly) between and across some of the activist currents that I discuss in the previous section. These histories diverged and came back together in surprising ways, with narratives that varied widely depending on the subject position of the person telling the story, resulting in very few points of consensus. For example, some insisted on the emergent power of Bolivia’s feminist movement while others corrected me for calling it a “movement” at all, arguing that what activism exists is too disparate to be called such a thing.

For many of them, gender-based violence in one of its many forms (limited abortion access, restricted sexual autonomy, or intimate partner violence, to name a few that came up in our conversations) not only is what motivated them to begin “doing” feminist work in whatever form that has taken, but also remains at the center of their struggle. It defines the strategies that they use and the areas in which they organize. In this way, the politicized subjects created by gender-based violence have allowed activists to depart from historical molds for women’s activism. In this article, I show how these ruptures materialized and how activists have used them to create new spaces of articulation for feminist and women-led political activism, in which diverse groups are able to self-consciously participate in a coalition-building process in a way that has not required the erasure of difference. Although tensions remain, activist sectors are finding new ways, and perhaps new reasons, to engage with one another. I trace the emergence of these articulations through a few key moments, beginning by examining the politics around new legislation that came out of a high-profile feminicide case in 2013 and the grassroots mobilizations that followed. Through these mobilizations and the transnational emergence of NiUnaMenos in 2016, I show how gender-based violence becomes central to emergent feminist articulations. I then delve into the ideological, discursive, and strategic differences that exist within this emergent articulative space, which challenge notions of coalitions while leaving space for grassroots solidarity practices.


2013: Hanalí Huaycho, Grassroots Mobilizations, and Law 348

In February 2013, newspaper reporter Hanalí Huaycho was murdered by her husband, Jorge Clavijo Ovando. As the details of the case unfolded, the story of Huaycho’s death became shrouded in uncertainty and wrapped up in questions of power and impunity, even as Morales promised to bring “todo el peso de la ley”[7] down onto her killer (Alduante 2015). In the following weeks, a body was found in a river in Nor Yungas that was alleged by the police to belong to Clavijo, the husband, despite the overwhelming forensic evidence suggesting otherwise. This case captured the attention of media and activists alike because of these strange contradictions and because, as Huaycho was a fellow reporter, the press was meticulous in its reporting on this particular case. Because of the events surrounding this case, from grassroots mobilizations to changes in the law, 2013 is often cited as a turning point in the struggle against gender-based violence in Bolivia. I argue that the outcomes of this case have been mischaracterized as primarily impacting the policy realm, and that the struggle around gender violence that emerged around it in activist landscapes provided a new space for feminist organizing and laid the groundwork for an emergent articulation.

In the wake of Huaycho’s death, feminist organizations worked to bring attention to the aspects of the case that made it particularly egregious beyond the unthinkable violence that had occurred, highlighting the missed opportunities for intervention that might have saved the reporter’s life. Huaycho had repeatedly reported her husband for abuse as early as 2008 and again in 2011, but he had evidently faced no consequences as a result of these reports. Activists and reporters alike pointed to the fact that Clavijo held a police position in the UTARC, a national intelligence and counterintelligence agency that has since been disbanded. As such, it was not difficult for Paceños to believe that the perpetrator had benefited from corruption, receiving coverage from the government because of his position, ultimately at the expense of Huaycho’s life. The case became emblematic of the shortcomings of the law as well as its implementation.

In the days and weeks that followed Hanalí Huaycho’s murder, activists took to the streets, and NGO leaders and politicians worked to pass a new law “para garantizar a las mujeres una vida libre de violencia,”[8] commonly referred to as “Ley 348” (2013). Once passed, this law would become one of the most progressive and comprehensive laws on the issue of violence against women in the Latin America, detailing sixteen different categories of violence ranging from physical and sexual to psychological and institutional. The law names feminicide as the most extreme manifestation of violence against women, which is itself a progressive rupture from previous legal codes and the existing legal structures in other parts of the region and globally, many of which do not treat femicidal violence differently from other types of homicides, despite the gendered and patriarchal nature of the crimes. Beyond defining different forms of violence against women, Law 348 also mandates prevention efforts by the ministries of communication, labor, health, and education at both departmental and municipal levels.

Law 348 had been sitting in committee in draft form for years before Hanalí Huaycho’s highly publicized feminicide. Seeing the media representations of the murder and the grassroots demands for justice, President Morales issued a mandate that the legislature vote on the law. In the following weeks, the law was pushed through the Legislative Assembly by MAS politicians Gabriela Montaño and Betty Tejada. However, to characterize the passage of Law 348 as a direct result of the mobilizations that occurred after Huaycho’s death, or, worse, as a benevolent response of the government to the act of violence, would be a disservice to the women who spent years working on this law and lobbying for its passage. As one activist told me, “las organizaciones de género han luchado diez años por lo menos con modificar esa ley.”[9] A revision to the previous law dealing with this kind of violence had been in the works for years prior, headed up by civil society organizations that form part of a network called la Comunidad de Derechos Humanos, led by Monica Bayá. When I spoke with Bayá about the network, she described the Comunidad as

una red de articulación de instituciones que trabajan por la promoción de los derechos humanos que inicialmente se gesta como un espacio entre sociedad civil, estado, y cooperación internacional. Que tenía la finalidad de analizar de mejor manera las denuncias de violaciones de derechos humanos y su investigación. Posteriormente se vio que era un poco complejo el tener en el mismo escenario…instituciones civiles, que son las que denuncian, y un estado que es el que vulnera. Entonces más bien se vio que lo rico de un espacio de estas características era trabajar sobre las coincidencias, sobre aquello que es posible agendar de manera colaborativa con la sociedad civil con acompañamiento de la cooperación internacional.[10]

In the early 2000s, one of the network’s primary foci became working on what would eventually become Law 348. In a departure from the previous law, 1674, which dealt only with “violencia en la familia,”[11] (1995) civil society members like Monica Bayá and her colleagues worked to ensure that Law 348 would widen the scope of what would be considered violence by the law. Over the course of more than a decade, la Comunidad de Derechos Humanos worked in partnership with other members of feminist civil society, state institutions, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia to write this law (UN News Centre 2013).

Even so, the work that went into the creation of Law 348 before it was passed is not always made visible. Instead, politicians took the opportunity to engage in an accelerated legislative process to pass the law less than a month after the news of Huaycho’s murder broke. This was portrayed as a knee-jerk progressive reaction on the part of the government to Huaycho’s death. The last line of a press release from the Ministry of Communication reads:

La Ley Integral fue aprobada con celeridad luego del asesinato de la periodista Hanalí Huaycho, quien murió luego de recibir 15 puñaladas de su esposo Jorge Clavijo, hecho que dejó al descubierto la falta de normas y medidas que protejan a la mujer y frenen y castiguen la violencia (Ministerio de Comunicación 2013). [12]

By waiting for a case as highly visible as Huaycho’s was, the MAS government was able to maximize the political benefits of passing Law 348 while also deflecting some of the criticisms of corruption and apathy that accompanied the specifics of the case. In doing so, it co-opted and thereby participated in the erasure of the work that feminist civil society had been doing on this law for many years prior to Huaycho’s death.

By October of that same year, Huaycho’s case still felt like an open wound to many in La Paz and El Alto, despite the policy changes that had emerged. Activists from these cities took to the streets in a march culminating in Plaza Murillo, where they were met with repression and tear gas by the police. Feminist activist Silvia Fernandez describes this march as “la primera vez que vemos en la calle a grupos de mujeres que no estaban vinculadas a las ONGs que tradicionalmente peleaban por el tema de la violencia.”[13] That is to say that in this march, the barriers between the gender technocracy and other sectors of feminist activism began to fall, if only temporarily, in order to make space for this pragmatic coalition in the struggle against femicidal violence. This moment and space in which diverse feminist actors were able to come together in this way are what made the events of 2013 into a turning point in the history of feminist activism in Bolivia. It was not the passage of Law 348, as some have suggested, but rather a direct, grassroots reaction against the inaction, suspected corruption, and co-optation of feminist work on the part of the government.

In speaking of the same October 2013 march, Fernandez went on to tell me, “entonces ahí empiezan a surgir pequeños colectivos.”[14] These pequeños colectivos, which ruptured with the structures of gender technocracy but also established alternatives to larger and more well-known autonomous collectives like Mujeres Creando, were composed of a diverse array of feminists. Some, including many whom I spoke with, had formerly been part of the gender technocracy as NGO workers. Some worked full-time in women’s NGOs and sought another outlet for their activism. Others had never set foot in an NGO, and more still were university students or workers who previously did not have a space to organize as women and feminists. Of the three currents that I discuss at the beginning of this article, the gender technocracy and autonomous feminists were most represented in these small collectives. That is not to say that there were no activists utilizing a class-based analysis, only that these currents were the most salient. In the years that followed the 2013 mobilizations, the collectives began to grow and multiply as they engaged in political discussions, some attempting to articulate manifestos or political platforms. They broke apart and came together, learning from each other and developing political and affective relationships necessary in the construction of an emergent coalition.


NiUnaMenos in La Paz: Emergent Spaces of Articulation

In 2016, members of these emergent feminist collectives began to gather under the name of NiUnaMenos,[15] borrowing the language from their Argentine compañeras. I spoke with Silvia Fernandez on the upper floor of a café in San Miguel. Fernandez is one of the founders of NiUnaMenos in La Paz and describes herself as a lifelong socialist feminist. When we spoke about the early days of this articulation, Fernandez emphasized that NiUnaMenos was not blindly imported from their neighbors in the Southern Cone, but rather thoughtfully incorporated into the existing tapestry of Bolivian feminist anti-violence activism. Even so, it is impossible to ignore the transnational dimensions of the movement. In her own words, “Nos subimos a la ola [de Argentina]. Pero nos subimos con independencia, con autonomía.”[16] She warned me against falling into the trap of portraying Bolivian feminist activism as merely an echo of Argentina’s NiUnaMenos or, worse, #MeToo in the United States.

As I suggested earlier in this article, and as echoed by Fernandez, the concept of autonomy is salient in Latin American feminisms. In the face of globalizing forces, the concept of feminist autonomy has become particularly useful as a way to discuss feminist movements’ relationships with other movements regionally and globally. Before examining the role of NiUnaMenos in shaping the articulations of contemporary Bolivian feminisms, I will briefly discuss some misconceptions around regional feminisms in order to show how these transnational movement dynamics are unfolding within contemporary feminist movements in Bolivia. This is especially important because Bolivian activists have to contend not only with Northern feminist hegemony, but also with the relative dominance of feminist movements of larger Latin American countries like their Argentine and Chilean neighbors.

In 1981, Latin American feminists held the first Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe in Bogotá. This was the first of many regional encuentros[17] that would take place in the last two decades of the twentieth century. At the encuentros, feminist collectives, talleres, and consciousness-raising groups came together to exchange ideas and strategies.[18] These regional encuentros played a critical role in the historical elaboration of Latin American and Bolivian feminisms. Sonia Alvarez shows that through these meetings, Latin American and Caribbean feminists were able to “forge a self-consciously regional feminist political identity, affirming a feminism distinct from its putatively bourgeois, imperialist North American and European variants” (2000, 29). As evidenced by these regional feminist identities and by the very nature of the debates at these encuentros and how they have been translated into the Bolivian feminist political landscape, it is impossible to speak of Bolivian feminisms without also speaking of the transnational.

Feminist scholars have pushed back against early understandings of globalization as an inevitable, unrelenting process in which hegemonic forces will unavoidably penetrate helpless regions of the world through an endless stream of institutions, involving both economic and cultural domination of every kind. Although globalization’s relationships to white supremacy and global capitalism mean that it is necessarily an uneven process, it would also be unrealistic and even ahistorical to claim that it is completely unidirectional. There are, in fact, ways in which movements have utilized globalization processes to amplify their own voices and create new kinds of political subjectivities. The regional feminist encuentros that began in the early 1980s are one of the ways that Latin American feminists used globalizing processes to their own ends: to bolster local movements by forming transnational solidarity networks. The encuentros, however, are only one example of this practice. The transnationalization of Latin American feminisms is a process that has taken a plurality of forms to innumerable ends, and has been mediated by a variety of actors ranging from huge IGOs to highly local organizations. Sonia Alvarez defines the process of transnationalization as

local movement actors’ deployment of discursive frames and organizational and political practices that are inspired, (re)affirmed, or reinforced—though not necessarily caused—by their engagement with other actors beyond national borders through a wide range of transnational contacts, discussions, transactions, and networks, both virtual and “real” (Alvarez 2000, 30).

Notably, this definition of transnationalization underscores the variety of ways in which “movement actors” strategically use their transnational networks to achieve their own ends. In her ethnography on the transnational feminist activism of women in rural Northeastern Brazil and their relationships with NGOs and Northern donors, anthropologist Millie Thayer provides excellent examples of these kinds of complex transnational strategies in great detail. Thayer describes the women’s movement in this relatively isolated part of Brazil as deeply “linked to discourses with roots half a world away” (Thayer 2010, 2). These linkages, she argues, are not as simple as early critics of globalization might have suggested. Rather, the women she worked with were making these discourses their own, using gender to strengthen a class-based social movement, much as Bolivian activists like Domitila Barrios de Chungara and las Bartolinas have done. Thayer’s “ant’s eye” account of the workings of the transnationalization of feminism is an exceptional illustration of the agency exercised by Latin American women activists in the face of hegemonic feminist currents arriving in the form of funding from the North, NGOs, and development projects.

This understanding of transnational feminist activisms serves as a useful tool with which we can understand the emergence of NiUnaMenos as a transnational movement. In June 2015, hundreds of thousands of people throughout Argentina took to the streets in massive mobilizations against feminicidal violence, united under the slogan of NiUnaMenos. Before these physical manifestations, however, NiUnaMenos existed as a hashtag, often paired with #VivasNosQueremos, which originated in Mexico, and #NiUnaMás, which focused on counting victims of feminicide as a subversive act of remembering (Diaz and Lopez 2016). At the second NiUnaMenos march in Buenos Aires in 2016, the definition of violence against women was amplified. Activists carried signs and gave speeches about the decriminalization of abortion and transphobic violence (Friedman and Tabbush 2016). When Silvia Fernandez and her peers began to convene as NiUnaMenos in La Paz, they were not only echoing the kinds of groups that had begun to form in Argentina but joining and participating in the interconnected wave of NiUnaMenos activism that was emerging across Latin America in response to waves of horrific feminicidal violence.

Organized under the title of NiUnaMenos, feminists from La Paz and El Alto marched in downtown La Paz again on November 25, 2016. This time, they marched against gender-based violence for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This march served as both a manifestation of and a springboard for the emerging articulation of feminist activism in Bolivia’s capital and its surroundings. The small collectives were joined by independent feminists, all marching under a united cause and demanding an end to violence against women. In the wake of the march, those in attendance began to meet more regularly, showing up to meetings as members of the collectives that began to emerge in 2013, independent activists, or representatives from NGOs. Fernandez described the early days of the articulation to me:

No somos mujeres solo de un sector. Sino que a través de NiUnaMenos, al principio por lo menos, empiezan a articular todas las otras colectivas y colectivos que se habían estado gestando ya sea eco-feministas o colectivos feministas mismos, o feministas independientes. Este es un punto de encuentro, justo desde las diversidades, porque hay también compañeras que son lesbo-feministas, gays que son feministas, que son parte del movimiento. Compañeras de ONGs en fin, por todo lado. Y por supuesto las independientes, las que no tienen ningún otro grupo en el que estén trabajando. Entonces esto le da una potencia importante [de Ni Una Menos]… [19]

In late 2016 and early 2017, NiUnaMenos provided a space in which a common struggle against gender violence, and especially against feminicide, was able to bring Bolivian feminist activists together. In this way, NiUnaMenos served as a unique new space of articulation in which previously disparate groups have been able to build coalitions in the face of increasing rates of femicidal violence.

In the summer and autumn of 2017, the feminists of La Paz and El Alto who had begun to meet with some regularity, for a few hours every month, under the name of NiUnaMenos began to organize that year’s International Women’s Day march, which feminists across Latin America use as an opportunity to manifest, articulate demands, and imagine future possibilities. In the process of organizing the 2017 march, activists began to question the title under which they were organizing. Through a series of discussions that sought to center the ideas of autonomy and coalition-building, the group decided instead to organize under the name of La Articulación Feminista de La Paz y El Alto.[20] Rather than putting the name of a transnational movement at the center of their organizational structure, they chose a more open-ended and local way of naming the feminist space that they were constructing. This name uses the idea of articulation, of the interaction between separate entities that allows each of them to work differently together, the way a joint might operate in a body. In doing so, it nods toward collaboration, of an intentional cooperation that does not compromise the individual struggles or ideologies of its participants. There is an enormous body of literature on articulation theory, some of which is certainly useful in understanding the ways in which these feminist activists are building a coalition and conceptualizing their own unity and sameness. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall provides the following analysis:

The unity formed by this combination or articulation, is always, necessarily, a ‘complex structure’: a structure in which things are related, as much through their differences as through their similarities. This requires that the mechanisms which connect dissimilar features must be shown—since no ‘necessary correspondence’ or expressive homology can be assumed as given (Grossberg 1986, 53).

In the Articulación Feminista de La Paz y El Alto, we are certainly seeing a “complex structure” being created through differences as much as through similarities. I am arguing that the mechanism used to connect these differences is the political mobilization around increasing rates of gender-based violence.

At the end of July 2019, just as I was finishing my field work, the Articulación Feminista de La Paz y El Alto held a weekend-long “pre-encuentro” with the aim of organizing a departmentwide encuentro to be held at a later date. The meeting resulted in a name change for the articulation and an increased sense of unity among the collectives and independent feminists present. It is only after this meeting that the articulation, now known as La Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto,”[21] began to release statements as a somewhat unified entity. This new name further emphasizes the difference that exists within the coalition, calling on its diversity as a strength, much in the same way that Silvia Fernandez does in talking about the movement when it was first formed in 2016.


Strained Coalitions: The Gender Technocracy in Emergent Feminist Articulations

Despite the emergent opportunities for solidarity and coalition building, the tensions and distances that exist between different currents of women’s activism have not disappeared. Although the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto started out as a space in which activists could gather regardless of party or institutional affiliation, its members soon shifted their approach, reflecting many of the same processes that autonomous feminist organizations throughout the region have undergone before them. They found that the activists showing up to their meetings as representatives of political parties or NGOs were engaging with their struggle through the lens of a primary agenda of that affiliation rather than prioritizing a struggle against patriarchal oppression. In 2017, members of the articulation made the collective decision to operate with complete independence from political parties, NGOs, and the government. Although they had never received funding or other kinds of backing from these institutions, they had allowed activists to participate in the articulation as representatives of outside institutions such as these. With this change, NGO workers who attend the meetings as independents do so while leaving their logos, so to speak, at the door. Likewise for those activists with party affiliations. When I spoke with self-identified autonomous feminists about the articulation’s relationship with NGOs, they did not shy away from discussing the tensions—ideological and strategic—between themselves and their counterparts from the gender technocracy.

Autonomous feminist activists who sat down with me had a great deal to say about the ways in which NGOs produce discourse around issues of gender-based violence and feminicide, and often highlighted the limiting and depoliticizing nature of NGO strategies. These critiques stem from the discursive formations that NGOs create around gender violence, which seep into public opinion and become hegemonic reality. Beyond the ideological distance between the NGOs and some of their autonomous counterparts within the articulation, there are also very real disagreements on the kinds of strategies that can and should be used to combat increasing rates of violence.

In NGO educational programming around gender violence, many organizations use a framework of “amor tóxico” or “relaciones tóxicas”[22] to discuss the root causes of relationship violence. In doing so, they recognize gender-based violence as a mechanism of power and control but fail to look past these mechanisms toward the societal structures of power that perpetuate this kind of violence. This understanding operates in tandem with the ways in which gender-based violence is portrayed in the media as an individual pathology, perpetrated by mentally ill or alcoholic men. In the media’s reading of these acts of violence, the killings and rapes are aberrations, unforeseen ruptures of a social contract that otherwise remains intact. NGOs, then, create educational programming around what they see as the root of the problem: unhealthy relationships. Unhealthy relationships, they say, occur when there is extreme jealousy, codependency, and lack of separation between two partners. When I interviewed the director of major nonprofit Fundación VIVA, Elizabeth Salguero, she told me about what she thinks causes this kind of violence:

Entonces pienso que hay una serie de problemas psicológicos muy duros de lo que te enseñan, una disonancia cognitiva de los seres humanos entre lo que te enseñan y lo que realmente existe. Y que no tienes herramientas para trabajar con tus inseguridades, tu autoestima baja, tus dependencias afectivas… En la mayoría de los casos yo te diría que los hombres que llegan a esos extremos tienen problemas serios psicológicos. Serios de adaptación, de no poder controlar. Que hay que llegar hasta volverse asesinos para poder controlar con una mujer.[23]

The above quotation evidences the logic of an NGO worker who understands the root causes of femicidal violence to be the psychological problems afflicting young men that are causing them to want to control the women in their lives. When pressed, Salguero conceded that the “psychological issues” she points to are reified by patriarchal institutions such as schools and the media but insisted that the fundamental problem is best addressed by re-educating youth on how to engage in healthy relationships. In this way, Salguero’s perspective is not quite as far from that of more structurally minded autonomous feminists as one might think. Going into this conversation, my own assumptions based on the programming that I saw coming out of Fundación VIVA and similar organizations were that NGO workers like Salguero would not articulate an understanding of gender-based violence as based in patriarchal structures. What I found was not quite so simple. I found an understanding of gender-based violence as structural that was not being represented in the foundation’s educational materials and programming, indicating some distance between internal logics and public-facing discourse.

Throughout our conversation, Salguero kept returning to the idea of education, of transforming Bolivia’s educational systems to teach people early on how to engage in healthy relationships and manage their own emotions. She told me about their latest violence-prevention campaign, “Sin Excusas, Sin Violencia,”[24] which appears all over social media and on banners at Carnaval and Gran Poder. These posters, banners, and Facebook posts ask those who engage with them to imagine life with “more dancing and less violence,” and to be wary of relationships involving control of each other’s cell phones (“Sin Excusas, Sin Violencia” 2019). This campaign strives for inclusivity, with images that depict queer relationships. The message that the campaign sends is very clear: that violence can be ended if only people would stop making excuses and learn how to engage in healthy relationships.

The message that this kind of programming sends about gender-based intimate partner violence, which seeks to engage individual pathologies and practices, is depoliticizing. It engages the problem as psychological and relational, when in reality it is inherently political. Argentine anthropologist Rita Segato has written at length about gender violence, and many of the Bolivian activists I spoke with referenced her work as central to how they have come to conceptualize this issue. In her 2016 book La Guerra contra las mujeres, which she describes as an ethnography of patriarchal power, Segato argues that patriarchal and misogynistic violence are manifesting as symptoms of the state of what she terms “dueñidad” in which we all live. For Segato, gender-based violence is about power and ownership. Sexual violence, she shows, is a misnomer because, although the violence is enacted through sexual means, the purpose of the act is not the fulfillment of a sexual desire but a desire for the power that is linked to belonging to a masculine group (Segato 2016). It should come as no surprise, then, that for those who understand violence against women as Segato does, i.e., as fundamentally political, the solutions offered by educational campaigns like “Sin Excusas, Sin Violencia” seem futile at best and counterproductive at worst.

If NGOs, or at least some NGO workers, operate with a basic understanding of gender-based violence as structural and political, why is this conceptualization of the issue not always reflected in their programming? When it comes to gender-based violence, at least at the interpersonal level, the gap between feminist civil society and autonomous feminists is not so much ideological as it is discursive. It lies in the language and concepts used to talk about and combat the problem. Part of this disconnect may be a result of the very strategies employed by NGOs. How could an educational campaign achieved through billboards and Facebook ads possibly address issues of gender-based violence as anything more than psychological and relational? Billboard space is limited, and it is much easier to utilize that space to engage with these areas of the discursive field, which are already more well established, than it is to widen it.

Apart from educational campaigns, another primary mode of struggle utilized by the gender technocracy is in policy advocacy. I have discussed the ways in which NGOs were heavily involved in writing Law 348 in the decade before it was passed in 2013. Since then, activists and gender experts alike have seen that the law, although very progressive in the policies that it establishes and the languages that it uses to do so, has not had the desired effect. As Monica Bayá tells me, their celebration of the newly passed Law 348 was complicated by some of the law’s blind spots.

En ese momento lo hemos visto como gran victoria, es una ley súper compleja. Es compleja porque se ha intentado poner candados para que no se chicane el sistema judicial. Pero deja de lado ciertas cosas. Por ejemplo, no se considera la violencia machista entre mujeres. Entonces ahí tienes casos de compañeras lesbianas que han sufrido violencia machista por parte de sus compañeras mujeres, pero que la ley no las reconoce. [25]

As Bayá aptly points out, the law meant to address violence against women in all its forms does so through a heteronormative framework. Law 348 assumes that the perpetrators of violence will be heterosexual men and that their victims will be heterosexual women. Granted, even this understanding is a major advancement from the previous legal paradigm, Law 1674, which considered and protected women only from violence perpetrated in a familial context, in which they cohabitated, were married, or shared children together.

In addition to lobbying for policy reform, feminist civil society also works to monitor the law’s implementation. In September 2018, Mujeres Creando asked that Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) conduct a study on the execution of Law 348 (Anabel 2018). The study highlights barriers to the law’s goals of prevention and accountability at multiple levels. Through a series of in-depth interviews, the study shows that barriers at the investigative and judicial levels combined with institutional discrimination on the axes of gender and ethnicity limit the efficacy of Law 348 (IHRC 2019). Corruption and a lack of education in police forces and in the judicial system certainly play a part in this. The problems, however, are also structural. The apparatuses surrounding the law’s implementation are severely underfunded. The law was approved in 2013, but with the absolute minimum funding. One gender worker told me that, in designing the law, the budget they had calculated for a small municipality is close to what is now allocated for the implementation of the policy on a national level. Additionally, Emma Mackey’s 2016 study found that Law 348’s implementation is obstructed by the law’s emphasis on punishment over prevention, among other factors also addressed by the IHRC report (Mackey 2017).

Massive amounts of energy and resources from feminist civil society have been invested in monitoring this law. La Comunidad de Derechos Humanos has taken on this role of monitoring the law’s implementation, efficacy, and resource allocation. The network lobbies for the judicial branch to attach sanctions to the categories of violence that do not yet have them, arguing that without the sanctions, the words are empty. They work to raise awareness of the small budget allocated to the law, which has a hearty section on prevention and education that goes largely unfulfilled because of a lack of financial and human resources. This work, while arguably pragmatic, is also depoliticizing in the way that it limits the feminist imagination of what is capable of being transformed. Many of the activists I spoke with from outside the gender technocracy lamented all this energy—which could be spent working toward feminist transformations—as wasted. In a conversation we had on this subject, one member of the collective Warmis en Resistencia,[26] which participates in the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto, said, “las institucionales celebran mucho sus leyes que logran, pero las auto-gestionadas decimos no, el estado no nos va a garantizar ni mierda. Nunca lo ha hecho.”[27] Many of the autonomous feminists see it as a futile exercise to try to make change through the patriarchal state.

Feminist civil society’s primary strategies of educational programming and policy advocacy are also viewed as ineffective and depoliticizing by many autonomous feminists. The way that the work of the gender technocracy has impacted the activist landscape goes much deeper than just strategic differences and seeps into what the same activist from Warmis en Resistencia calls “la creatividad feminista.” Another activist, a now-independent who spent years working as part of the gender technocracy in research-oriented feminist NGOs, shared similar concerns:

El problema es que [las ONGs] nos han dejado una cultura, una cultura de hacer las cosas así: proyectitos para 600 personas, para no sé que. Darles una cosita, súper paternalista. Incluso sacando datos y aplaudiéndose entre todas, ‘wow, en esa generación no va a haber violencia!’ Por favor. [28]

The gender technocracy, then, has created a kind of habit of feminist activism that limits the ways in which activists are able to engage in or, better yet, imagine themselves engaging in transformative work. In a self-perpetuated cycle funded by international and domestic grants, this activist is arguing that feminist creativity has been limited to the work that can be done by short-term projects and workshops, because these are the kinds of programs that can get funding. While the hegemony of NGOs is certainly being contested by the state and grassroots activists alike, it is clear that the strategies that they utilize, both discursive and material, have penetrated the broader landscape of Bolivian women’s political activism in ways that go beyond their direct involvement in the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto.

I do not, however, mean to negate the presence of the strategic coalitions that have been built between feminist civil society and grassroots movements. These coalitions are clearly present in the articulation that I examine, but also in less formal capacities. Teresa Alarcón, who works at Colectivo Rebelidía, an NGO in Santa Cruz that focuses on issues of reproductive justice as well as gender-based violence, cautions against these erasures. Alarcón highlights the danger of denying the formal, informal, and affective linkages among feminists across sectors. She urges us to instead consider the spaces in which feminist activists come together to create material change in the lives of women.

…sobre todo considerando de que las redes de solidaridad y de sororidad feminista que funcionan en nuestro país para aspectos tan básicos como para acceder un aborto seguro. Clandestino pero seguro. El aborto libre es un crimen en nuestro país, pero aún funcionan, no? Y funcionan de una forma colaborativa entre feministas autónomas, entre feministas que trabajan en instituciones o en ONGs. Entonces, negar el vínculo, negar la alianza que tenemos entre nosotras es irreal, es mentira, pero además es hasta peligroso porque se puede romper estas redes que tenemos de solidaridad con las mujeres. [29]

Noting this very real danger posed by invisibilizing feminist solidarity networks, I aim not to emphasize the differences among various currents of contemporary Bolivian feminisms, but rather to show how despite and through these differentiations, activists are creating unprecedented spaces for coalition-building.


Feminist Civil Society and the State in the MAS Era

Although the relationships between the gender technocracy and grassroots women’s movements have been strained since their emergence, feminist civil society’s relationship with the state in Bolivia has seen much brighter days. The nature of the interlocking relationships between the state and domestic and transnational NGOs is changing. Evo Morales’s government worked to shrink the presence of NGOs in Bolivia’s political landscape both directly and indirectly. By cutting revenue sources and breaking some of the interdependencies established during the WID and neoliberal eras, the government has successfully reduced the number and power of the organizations. They have especially targeted environmental NGOs and other organizations that have spoken out against MAS’ extractivist policies, such as el Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia (CEDIB) and el Centro de Estudios Jurídicos e Investigación Social (CEJIS). Some of these tensions came to a head in the months following the government’s 2010 announcement of the major highway that was planned to be constructed through the TIPNIS territory, which is both a protected section of the Amazon rainforest and an indigenous territory (Ellerbeck 2015). In 2016, CEDIB was abruptly removed from its offices at la Universidad Mayor de San Simón (UMSS) in Cochabamba. Although the reasons given by the university’s rector had to do with an expired agreement, the organization’s director and others hypothesized that the true nature of the decision was political, a reaction to CEDIB’s outspoken critique of the government’s extractivist policies and especially of its relationship with Chinese oil company BGP Bolivia (Hill 2017).

Although feminist organizations have not been hit quite as hard as their environmentalist counterparts, they have suffered all the same. Referring to women’s NGOs, one activist told me, “el Evo las ha mandado al demonio.”[30] In 2016, CIDEM began the slow process of closing shop. At first, the organization closed only its direct-services branch, cutting off the free legal and psychological services it had provided to victims of violence (Mendoza 2016). Later, CIDEM’s research activities also came to an end as its gender experts moved on to other sites. While I don’t contest the value or validity of autonomous feminist critiques of NGOs as depoliticizing forces, I do want to render visible the actual human costs of an organization like CIDEM closing its services.

For survivors of intimate partner violence and their families, and especially for the families of victims of feminicide, services like those that CIDEM used to offer are, while imperfect, absolutely essential. A woman I refer to here as Nora told me the story of her sister Mari’s feminicide and the pain, heartache, and legal upheaval that followed. [31] She talked me through the days and weeks that followed her sister’s murder in graphic detail, from identifying a decaying corpse that was carelessly sprawled on the floor of a morgue to the small fees for things like latex gloves and photocopies that made it difficult for her family to even identify Mari’s body, much less access the beginnings of what would grow into an immense legal process. After her older sister was killed at only 26 years old, Nora became the oldest sibling. As such, she became responsible for the legal battle that would unravel over the ensuing years. Her supervisor at the jewelry store where she worked helped to put her in touch with lawyers from CIDEM who would guide her through the legal process. In the two years that she spent navigating the legal system with CIDEM, she had three different lawyers. As a result, she had to repeat her sister’s story and her own to three different people before even getting in front of a judge. She used CIDEM’s resources because they were free and she did not have the funds to pay for a lawyer of her own, but she told me how hard it was to continuously repeat her story and Mari’s. In this way, CIDEM, an organization meant to advocate for Nora and her family, was complicit in a retraumatization process in which Nora was made to relive very traumatic events over and over again in order to access legal services. In 2016, her third lawyer told her that she would have to seek legal counsel somewhere else because CIDEM was closing. The lawyer informed Nora that a few of the most severe cases were being sent to a lawyer in El Alto, but that her sister’s case was not one of these. Because Nora was unable to find free legal counsel after receiving this news, her pursuit of accountability for her sister’s murderer ended when CIDEM closed.

CIDEM’s closure is an extreme case. The fact is that on the whole, the gender technocracy has not shrunk to the same extent as its environmental counterparts. Even so, the NGOs that have managed to stay afloat have experienced changes in their relationships with the state. They have had to seek more funding from other sources and have had to learn to walk a fine line in their policy critiques. In discussing this changing landscape, Sonia Montaño[32] spoke of an atmosphere of fear that gender workers have had to contend with in the MAS era. A member of Warmis en Resistencia expanded on this notion:

Las instituciones que trabajan en incidencia política muchas veces se ven de manos atadas. Porque si salen reaccionarias ante las cosas que hace el gobierno, el gobierno les cierra la puerta y ya no pueden hacer más incidencia política.[33]

The key to Sonia Alvarez’s conceptualization of the dual role of feminist NGOs is in the fluidity that they possessed in the 1990s, enabling them to easily move between policy advocacy in governmental apparatuses and the movement. I do not claim that these limitations are completely new to the MAS era. However, I do posit that the underlying (and in many ways justified) distrust for NGOs and their connections to the development apparatus on the part of the MAS government have strained the mobility that feminist NGOs once held.

This very phenomenon, of feminist civil society being increasingly shut out of processes of change through the state, has facilitated the creation of spaces for increased collaboration between members of the gender technocracy and autonomous feminists. Seeing their limited productive opportunities in the state, gender workers are faced with the option to remain within civil society, building and maintaining networks with other NGOs and IGOs. As evidenced by networks like la Comunidad de Derechos Humanos, gender workers have certainly utilized this route. In addition, they have taken advantage of another option, which is to turn to the autonomous feminists who are leading an emergent movement. They have done this too, building formal and informal relationships with the movement in emergent spaces like the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto.



Emerging out of a shared struggle against increasing rates of gender-based violence, the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto is creating a new, coalitionary space for autonomous feminists and members of the gender technocracy to exchange ideas and organize resistance. The events of 2013 surrounding Hanalí Huaycho’s feminicide and the passing of Law 348 created the conditions for the emergence of small autonomous collectives. In 2016, activists harnessed the transnational force of NiUnaMenos to create a space where these small collectives could organize in conversation and solidarity with the gender technocracy. By limiting the avenues through which NGOs can make change through state apparatuses, the deteriorating relationship between feminist civil society and the state has encouraged gender workers to strengthen relationships with autonomous feminists. As a result, the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto has been able to disrupt the historical separations between autonomous feminists and feminist civil society without erasing the strategic, ideological, and discursive differences that remain between these sectors.

These emergent articulations are, in real time, revealing very important features of contemporary Bolivian feminist activism. First, they demonstrate the fluidity of Bolivian feminisms. The emergence of new coalitions, new discursive and strategic tools, and new ways of organizing signal ever-changing theorization and practice within spaces of women’s activism in Bolivia. Historical tensions remain, yes, but they do not necessarily preclude possibilities for disruptions of these changing barriers. Coalitions come together and fall apart, adapting from yesterday in order to confront the problems of today and tomorrow. Secondly, the Articulación de Mujeres y Feministas Pluridiversas de La Paz y El Alto shows how gender-based violence has operated as an incentive for this mobility. It is increasing rates of feminicidal violence in particular that have catalyzed the emergent coalitions. The issue pulls disparate currents of the movement together, connecting them through a common struggle. At the same time, it is this very issue that creates, maintains, and makes visible the distance between these sectors. By examining the ways in which activists in the gender technocracy and autonomous feminist activists address the issues surrounding gender-based violence, the ideological, discursive, and strategic differences between these sectors are easily revealed. These are the very differences that continue to strain coalition-building processes and open the door for co-optation and depoliticization. These dangers are becoming even more salient in the wake of Bolivia’s 2019 political crisis. Even so, Bolivian feminist activists are finding highly creative ways to resist co-optation and build coalitions and networks with the power to transform systems and lives.



[1] “In Bolivia, the feminist tide has surged from having had enough, from pain, from rage, and from the nausea in the face of the accumulation of cases of extreme physical and sexual violence that remain in impunity. The horrific spectacle of the tortured, mutilated, and raped bodies of women, and the helplessness in the face of a system that elevates the perpetrators and postpones—or outright denies—justice for the victims, have pushed hundreds of women to take to the streets, to organize themselves to defend themselves and establish alliances with other groups (such as groups of trans women). [The women] have convened in courts, plazas, and universities, at the doors of churches, the city halls, la Casa Grande and the Palace of Justice, to make it clear that we will no longer be silent, because—as Cristina Rivera Garza says—we have all lost too much because of women’s silence.”

[2] “Enough of the waste on our behalf!”

[3] Derived from Jill Radford and Diana Russell’s “femicide,” meaning “the misogynist killing of women by men” (1992). Many feminist scholars use Mexican anthropologist and politician Marcela Lagarde’s term “feminicide” to refer to “the murders of women and girls founded on a gender power structure” (Fregoso and Bejarano 2010), which is a more political term that also implies the structural impunity surrounding these crimes. In Bolivia, most people use the Spanish “feminicidio” rather than the “femicidio” that is used in some other Latin American countries.

[4] “Siglo XX” refers to a tin mine in Potosí, where the wives of miners formed Comité de Amas de Casa Mineras to operate in parallel to the masculine mining syndicate. The committee is famous for their hunger strike that precipitated the end of Hugo Banzer’s dictatorship.

[5] Movimiento al socialismo, Movement Towards Socialism: Evo Morales’s party.

[6] Maria Galindo: writer, performer, and co-founder of Mujeres Creando. Until recently, she wrote a weekly editorial in the major La Paz–based newspaper Página Siete.

[7] “All the weight of the law”

[8] “to guarantee women a life free from violence”

[9] “Gender organizations have worked for at least ten years to modify that law.”

[10] “a network of institutions that work for the promotion of human rights that initially is born as a space among civil society, the state, and international cooperation. It had the goal of analyzing in the best way the reports of violations of human rights and their investigations. Later we saw that it was a little complicated to have civil institutions, which are the ones that do the reporting, and a state that is the one that makes people vulnerable. So, for the better, we saw that the good thing about this kind of space was to work on agreements, upon which we could build agendas in a collaborative way with civil society accompanying international cooperation.”

[11] “family violence”

[12] “The Comprehensive Law was swiftly approved after the murder of journalist Hanalí Huaycho, who died after receiving 15 stab wounds from her husband Jorge Clavijo, a fact that uncovered the lack of standards and measures that protect women and slow down and punish violence.”

[13] “the first time that we see groups of women in the streets that weren’t connected to the NGOs that traditionally fought over the issue of violence.”

[14] “so that is where the small collectives begin to emerge.”

[15] Not one woman less

[16] “We joined the wave from Argentina. But we joined with independence, with autonomy.”

[17] Meeting or conference

[18] For more on the encuentros and formations of regional feminist identities, see Aide Franco García 2018.)

[19] “We are not women from only one sector. Rather, through NiUnaMenos, at least in the beginning, other collectives that have been gestating, be it eco-feminists or independent feminists, begin to articulate. This is the point of meeting, precisely in those diversities, because there are also lesbo-feminist compañeras, gay [men] who are feminists, they’re part of the movement too. Compañeras from NGOs, from everywhere. And of course, the independents, who don’t have any other group that they’re working in. So this is the important power (potency) [of Ni Una Menos]…”

[20] “The Feminist Articulation of La Paz and El Alto.”

[21] “Articulation of Pluri-diverse Women and Feminists of La Paz and El Alto”

[22] “toxic love” or “toxic relationships”

[23] “So I think that there’s a series of very difficult psychological problems from what they teach you, a cognitive dissonance that human beings have between what they teach you and what really exists. And you don’t have the tools to work on your insecurities, your low self-esteem, your affective dependencies …. In the majority of cases I would say that the men that reach those extremes have serious psychological problems. Serious problems of adaptation, of not being able to control. That they have to reach the point of becoming murderers in order to control a woman.”

[24] “Without excuses, without violence”

[25] “In that moment, we saw it as a great victory, it is a super complex law. It’s complex because it has attempted to put padlocks to prevent cheating in the judicial system. But it has left certain things aside. For example, it does not consider violencia machista between women. So there you have cases of lesbian compañeras who have suffered violencia machista from their women partners, but the law fails to recognize them.”

[26] “Women in Resistance” (“Warmis” means “women” in Aymara)

[27] “the institucionales [the gender technocracy] celebrate the laws that that they achieve, but the self-managed [feminists] say no, the state won’t guarantee us shit. It never has.”

[28] “The problem is that NGOs have left us with a culture of doing things like this: little projects for 600 people, for I don’t know what. Give them a little thing, super paternalistic. They even collect data and then they all applaud themselves, ‘Wow, now there won’t be violence in that generation!’ Please.”

[29] “…especially considering that the networks of feminist solidarity and sorority function in our country for such basic aspects as accessing a safe abortion, clandestine but safe. Open abortions are a crime in our country, but they still happen, don’t they? And the way that they happen is collaborative among autonomous feminists and feminists that work in institutions or NGOs. So then to deny the connection, to deny the alliance that we have among all of us is unrealistic, it is a lie. What’s more, it’s even dangerous, because it has the ability to break down these networks of solidarity that we women have.”

[30] “Evo has sent them to hell.”

[31] I have changed both of their names here for anonymity.

[32] CIDEM’s founder.

[33] “The institutions that work in political advocacy often have their hands tied. Because if they react against the things that the government does, the government shuts the door and they won’t be able to do political advocacy anymore.”



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