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ACHOCALLA, Bolivia – Few countries in the world have advanced so quickly toward gender parity in politics as has Bolivia, where women now hold almost half the seats in congress and laws mandate gender equality at lower levels too.
But some male Bolivian politicians have resisted the change, and women's rights activists report a sharp increase in violence against female politicians as their numbers rise.
Mary de la Cruz, a city councilwoman in a town on the outskirts of La Paz, said the town's mayor accosted her as she walked with colleagues through a plaza in Achocalla and punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground. She said he was apparently angry she had complained of irregularities in public works contracts.
De la Cruz filed a complaint, but so far authorities have taken no action against Mayor Damaso Ninaja, who has denied punching the councilwoman, saying she merely fell.
"It hasn't been easy for me to get where I am," said de la Cruz, who complained the mayor also had been spreading false rumors about her sex life. "And the man thinks that we are inferior creatures, that a punch isn't anything, that's its normal."
Bolivia began addressing gender imbalance in politics in 1997 with a law that at least 30 percent of candidates for many races be women. The Andean nation subsequently refined the laws to guarantee parity.
A decade ago, women held only 4 percent of posts in municipal assemblies. By 2015, they held 50 percent — a group that included De la Cruz, 38.
But women's rising profile "has also led to problems related to discrimination, manipulation and violence," a report by UN Women said.
Prosecutors say they have received 36 complaints of harassment and political violence against women so far this year. But electoral officials say they've received 60 such complaints — six times the number last year. And the Councilwomen's Association of Bolivia says it has registered 90 complaints.
Some women say they wound up dropping their complaints when a male-dominated legal system showed little interest. On the other hand, some courts have shown remarkable zeal in prosecuting women.
Monica Paye, was arrested and suspended from her position as councilwoman in the La Paz-area municipality of Callapa in May when officials accused her of losing two city-owned laptop computers, even though she offered to replace them. Paye, 34, who has remained under house arrest, had feuded with the mayor over public works contrasts in the town.
Awareness of violence against female politicians in Bolivia was raised by the 2012 killing of Ancoirames town councilwoman Juana Quispe, whose body was found with signs of violence on the banks of a river in La Paz.
Quispe's family accused then-Mayor Felix Huanca and three councilmen, whom they accused of persecuting Quispe for nearly two years because of her allegations of corruption. Relatives said Quispe had been threatened in efforts to force her from her job and at one time was beaten and dragged through a town square.
Quispe's death led to passage of a law against harassment and violence against women in public office, a law that has been held up as a model for other nations, said Carolina Taborga, UN Women representative in Bolivia. Perpetrators can be punished with up to five years in prison.
But Quispe's killing remains unsolved even as attacks on female politicians have increased.
"The law is very nice, but it's not working," said De la Cruz, who is also the mother of three children and a potato and lettuce farmer. "We're still suffering harassment and violence."
Paye said the pressure is especially strong against women in the countryside. She said pressures include false allegations of infidelity and withholding of salaries, as well as physical violence.
In some elections, candidates are required to have a running mate or alternate of the opposite sex. If a woman wins, sometimes her male alternate will seek to oust her to take power.
Sometimes women come under attack even from a male politician's family or friends.
Escoma town Councilwoman Marcela Mamani Huanca had accused the mayor of corruption shortly before he died in a car crash. His family blamed her for the death.
"Right after the mayor's wake, his sister and brother dragged me by the hair in the town square in front of my children," said Huanca, a 35-year-old butcher.
Gender-based political violence is seen throughout Latin America, particularly in Mexico, where 19 female candidates were killed and 118 were attacked ahead of the July elections. Brazilians were shocked at this year's murder of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, who was known for outspokenness against police violence. And in Peru, electoral authorities estimate that four of every 10 female candidates are victims of political harassment and if elected, two out every five women suffer political violence.
"Men think that women take on political positions to take away their jobs," said UN Women's Taborga. "This only expresses the male-chauvinistic and patriarchal mentality that persists in the organizations that that these men represent."