If you speak to any Bolivian in the streets of La Paz and mention Mujeres Creando, the chances are they will have heard of them. Over the years, this anarcha-feminist collective has become well known for participating in various forms of direct action and community work and speaking up for vulnerable and marginalised women across Bolivia. We speak to Julieta Ojeda, one of the members of the collective, to hear the story of Mujeres Creando and find out more about their inspirational work.
Our meeting takes place in an events space above Virgen de los Deseos, the café and social centre that Mujeres Creando use as their headquarters in La Paz. Ojeda describes the powerful and radical vision that the organisation has held at its core since humble beginnings in 1992.
`From the beginning, Mujeres Creando was about creating a new kind of leftist politics.´ Ojeda explains. `The three women who started the collective wanted to create something that wasn´t part of traditional left wing politics, wasn´t connected to any political party, and wasn´t simply an NGO that supported women, of which there were many around at that time. They wanted to create a new, radical, feminist social movement.´
Mujeres Creando is unlike anything else we have come across so far in our exploration of alternative politics here in South America. Ojeda outlines the principles upon which the collective is based: autonomy and independence; an anarcha-feminist ideology; a horizontal structure based on consensus decision making and a rotation of roles; and an open door for women of any age, class, sexuality, culture or race.
`For us it is fundamental that our collective is as diverse as possible. We want our membership to include the young and the old; students and professionals; lesbians and heterosexuals; women from various indigenous cultures. This diversity is very important to us.´
Since the collective began in 1992, Mujeres Creando has grown from strength to strength and is now well known across Bolivia, especially in La Paz where the initiative was born. Their fame is largely due to the group´s involvement in direct action, especially their works of graffiti, which cover the walls of the city and display thought-provoking and often controversial messages in their trademark font. Here are two examples:
`We cannot decolonise if we do not depatriarchalise.´
`In Aymara, English, Arabic and Spanish, woman means dignity.´
Today, the collective is what Ojeda calls a `living network´ of cultural and political spaces and services. They have had their café, hostel and events space Virgen de los Deseos for 9 years now, and another space in the city of Santa Cruz for 4 years. Their radio station, graffiti and regular magazine publications help to promote their work and their values, and they are part of an intellectual hub of feminist and anarchist thinkers who discuss radical ideas on feminism and other issues affecting modern-day Bolivian society.
All of the different branches of the collective, from the hostel and café to the radio station, are organised along a horizontal cooperative structure. The profits generated from each of the non-hierachical cooperatives are distributed amongst the members and reinvested into the organisation to help further their social projects. One of the collective´s principal and most successful initiatives is `Mujeres en Busca de Justicia´ (women in search of justice), a support service for women who are victims of domestic violence. Ojeda explains how this project came about.
`We had become really well known, with our graffiti and everything, but after a while, we realised we needed to do more. We saw the urgent need for a service that supported women in vulnerable and marginalised situations, such as domestic violence. We hired two women, who are feminists but are not directly members of Mujeres Creando; one is a lawyer and the other is a social worker. These women work with a team of volunteers and women who have previously experienced violence themselves, to implement actions which are both legal and illegal.
`Aside from the councilling and advice we provide, it is sometimes necessary that we help these women using means outside of the law, for example to recuperate their belongings or children. We also use the radio to name and shame fathers who do not pay their child support, a form of social pressure which really has an impact. In other words, we help in ways that other women´s support centres do not, always with our radical, feminist, non-discriminatory approach.´
The increase in public awareness of Mujeres Creando has not always meant positive support from their fellow Bolivians. Ojeda describes the stigma and criticism that the collective suffers from certain sections of Bolivian society :
`Some people say `Oh, they´re just a bunch of lesbians or bra burners´, and lots of people say that our approach to feminism and direct action is too extreme. We also have quite a tense relationship with the current government. Although we´re not completely against Morales´ principles or policies, we often work in solidarity alongside other groups of activists who are protesting against the government on various issues. For example, we´re currently supporting the disabled protest here in La Paz.´*
Despite the challenges and prejudices that the group sometimes faces from the public and from the government, Ojeda says that in general the reaction they receive is a positive one.
`We strive every day to challenge any criticism or prejudice that might come our way, and to help people understand why we take the measures we do. In general I would say we actually have the public on our side – we are a reference point for many women, and people listen out for and value our opinion on various issues. We aren´t just a tiny clique of women, we transcend many parts of society and represent women from all backgrounds and cultures. We hope to continue to expand and reach out to even more women, in Bolivia and beyond.´
At present, it seems there is a bright future for the collective and indeed for the wider feminist movement in Bolivia, and Mujeres Creando themselves have undoubtedly contributed to the increase in awareness and action for women´s rights. Despite any tensions that may exist between Morales and Mujeres Creando, it must be noted that the President has implemented several policies to protect women´s rights, and there are a number of state-sponsored campaigns against domestic violence across Bolivia. However, according to several Bolivian women that we have spoken to, there remains a deep-rooted sexism within the institutions that guard these policies. For example, we have heard of police dismissing cases of domestic violence or flat out refusing to believe women who are victims.
To ensure further progressive changes in Bolivian society, Mujeres Creando´s radical approach may be exactly what is needed to keep up the political pressure.
* A large group of disabled protesters marched for weeks from across the country to set up camp for four months in La Paz, demanding more financial support from the government; so far their demands have been ignored.