Honoria lives on the edge of Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia, in a small adobe house on the side of a dusty hill. When she decided to leave her abusive husband after 11 years together, she faced a series of obstacles. She didn’t have money to hire a lawyer and had difficulty understanding legal documents in Spanish – she is more comfortable using her local language, Quechua. She worried she would lose her house, and wondered if she’d get child support.
That’s when one of her neighbours, who had trained as a community educator with the Voces Libres Foundation, stepped in. The neighbour brought Honoria to the organisation’s centre for legal aid and shelter for abused women in Cochabamba. Today, Honoria still has her house and her children, and is a community educator herself.
Now it’s her job to go from house to house along the dirt roads in her neighbourhood as part of the Voces Libres initiative to reach women who live in the city’s poorest and most distant areas. The idea is to relay information to the women about their rights and sexual health, and to tell them about the legal centre and shelter.
“I tell them that I lived with violence, but not any more, and I feel free,” Honoria says.
Laura, who has spent several months in the shelter with her four children, says: “My husband mistreated and hit me a lot, and was always making me suffer over money, not giving me enough to feed the kids.” Like Honoria, she learned of the support through a community educator. “I’m not going back, I’m going to go forward with my children. Thank God, here I’m learning to sew and, even if it’s not much, with that I can get ahead.”
More than half of Bolivian women aged 15 to 49 have experienced intimate partner violence, according to a Pan American Health Organisation and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that analysed data from 12 countries over the past 12 years. Of the Latin American and Caribbean nations surveyed, Bolivia ranked the most violent in terms of women who had experienced such violence.
Voces Libres hopes its programme to assist women in Cochabamba, which has been running for two years, will serve as a model for other legal assistance programmes and shelters in terms of offering multi-faceted support by addressing the legal, economic and emotional aspects of violence.
In the same building that houses the shelter, lawyers work to establish protective measures and push cases forward, therapists talk with women and their children, job training is offered, and small no-interest loans assist with tools for work, such as sewing machines. The potential for economic independence is a key part of the programme.
“Many times we see women [who] are afraid to report their partners because of the economic factor. It’s a big issue, and because they’re afraid of not being able to support their family they endure a lot in their homes,” says legal programme coordinator Pamela Limache Galindo. “Women leave here empowered, with an economic vision and with tools … She is not frightened or fearful of confronting her reality.”
There is an expectation among some people in Bolivia that women should put up with abuse to keep the family together. That was the case for Elena, who recently reported her husband after he beat her with a metal rod. She has eight brothers and sisters but ended up in a shelter in the Andean city of La Paz. “They don’t support me,” she says. “They said: ‘You have to put up with it for your children.’ But I can’t.” Although Elena is safe in a shelter for now, she has no job or money.
There are only a few publicly funded shelters for abused women in Bolivia, along with a handful that are privately operated, like the one run by Voces Libres – but more are expected.
In 2013, Bolivia passed a law designed to increase support for abused women and enforce harsher punishment for abusers. Next year, the country’s regional and local governments must dedicate a percentage of their budgets to build and equip shelters and strengthen legal and psychological aid. For women like Honoria, Laura and Elena, that could be a lifesaver.