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Women join voices for change in Bolivia -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Women join voices for change in Bolivia

About 200 women have attended the School of Women Leaders for Secure Tenure, which teaches them how to advocate to make their lives better.
©Habitat for Humanity International/Alma Haser

If you don’t know your rights, ‘you are powerless’
By Phil Kloer


The School of Women Leaders for Secure Tenure has been operating since 2010; men recently started asking to attend. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Alma Haser


Living conditions in Cochabamba, Bolivia, can be very difficult, and many houses lack running water or a sewer connection. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Alma Haser


Habitat for Humanity doesn’t just build houses. It builds hope, it builds connections, and it builds pride. In Bolivia, Habitat is building a network that encompasses all those intangibles — a network that is changing the lives of women and their families.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. It is home to about 10 million people, more than half of whom live below the poverty line. Nearly one-third of Bolivian households are headed by women, and the vast majority of those households do not have secure land tenure, which means the families live in constant fear of eviction.

In Bolivia, as in many developing countries, establishing clear title to a piece of property can be difficult, and legal systems and cultural traditions have been weighted against women. If a man dies or leaves his wife or partner, she can find herself with no home and no recourse.

“The man’s name appears on property documents, but the name of the woman doesn’t appear. It just says, ‘Mr. Jose Torres and lady,’” said Maria Luisa Zanelli, manager of advocacy outreach for Habitat for Humanity International’s Latin America and Caribbean region.

But women in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba have joined together to secure women’s property rights, changing both laws and attitudes.

“We just didn’t know what to do or how to ask for help,” said Eugenia Marza, a married mother of two children and one of the leaders in the District 9 neighborhood of Cochabamba, a densely packed city of about 500,000 in central Bolivia. If you don’t know your rights, she said, “you are powerless.”

“It has been a journey that has taken us forward,” Marza said. “A journey with a lot of struggles along the way, but with many opportunities.”

Learning to be leaders

Falicia Yavira is a widow with five children who lives in a small house on a sloping hill in District 9. The family of six has one bedroom, a storage room with a bed, and an outdoor kitchen. They wash their clothes outside in a discarded tire.

Marza and Yavira are part of the Women’s Network for Secure Land Tenure, Housing and the City, an advocacy group that grew out of work by Habitat for Humanity Bolivia that was funded by UKAID.

In 2012, women from the network traveled to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, to meet with government officials and advocate for fairer laws. The passion that they brought to this first-person advocacy led to several changes in Bolivian property law, including a provision that says that property has to be registered in the names of both spouses.

The change meant that women in Bolivia now have equal land tenure rights with men.

“We worked with lawyers, article by article, trying to understand what the law was giving us,” Marza recalled. Originally, she said, “the law didn’t include all that we wanted; it didn’t specifically protect women.”

Marina Tomás Flores, another member of the network, said being in the network taught her about her rights. “Before, we had nothing like this,” she said. “I got involved with the network to be an advocate, a voice. … It has succeeded in helping me to learn about being a leader.”

With tenure secured, the network expands

The Women’s Network grew out of the School of Women Leaders for Secure Tenure, which Habitat Bolivia started in Cochabamba in 2010. About 200 women have attended the school, learning about rights, citizenship and how to improve living conditions.

The school has been so successful that men started applying, and after much discussion, the women decided to allow them to join. They wanted the community’s men to understand their rights, Zanelli said, and “now these men have become defenders of women’s rights.”

When the women graduate from the school, they receive a certificate and join the advocacy network.

Even with the victories and sense of accomplishment, life in District 9 can be very difficult. Clean water and waste disposal continue to be beyond the reach of many families. “The majority of people in District 9 still don’t have running water, and they’re suffering because of the lack of it,” Flores said.

Better water and sanitation are high on the priority list as both the school and the network move forward. Zanelli of Habitat has been working on a pilot program with other nongovernmental organizations, using microloans to improve water and sanitation for 100 District 9 families.

“I want to go a long way with the network,” Flores said, “and take the task forward.”

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