Bolivia

Last Updated 7 May 2021

The Constitution limits marriage to between a man and a woman. In December 2020, after a two year legal battle, a court in La Paz granted two men the right to register a civil union, which activists hope will set a precedent for other LGBTI+ couples to access recognition.The Plurinational State of Bolivia is a landlocked country and a democratic republic located in South America.

In 2006, the assumption of power of the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was followed by a review of the role of the Catholic church in the country and its influence on government. In 2009, this culminated in the adoption of a new Constitution following a national referendum, which declared the country a secular State. The Catholic Church nevertheless remains a prominent force in State politics.1https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/feminists_on_the_frontlines_-_bolivia_-_inclusion_of_sexual_and_reproductive_rights.pdf

Around 76.8% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, 16% as Protestant (including evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal groups). Approximately 5% identify as non-believers.2https://minorityrights.org/country/bolivia/ Amongst the indigenous population, who constitute around 41% of the population, formal Catholicism is mixed with an attachment to traditional beliefs and rituals.3https://www.thearda.com/internationalData/countries/Country_27_2.asp

 
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Constitution and government

Secular reforms under the Morales government

The Constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression.

In 2009, Bolivia voted in a referendum to approve a new secular Constitution that removed Catholicism as the official state religion. The 2009 Constitution provides a number of guarantees with respect to the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Article 4 states that: “the State respects and guarantees freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs according to their view of the world. The State is independent of religion.” Article 21 states that all Bolivians have the right “To freedom of belief, spirituality, religion and cult, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private, for legal purposes.”4https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Bolivia_2009.pdfin Spanish: https://www.oas.org/dil/esp/constitucion_bolivia.pdf

Though Morales identifies as a Catholic, he has not shied away from criticizing the Catholic Church, associating it with the Spanish colonization of Latin America in the 16th century. He is a defender of indigenous rights and beliefs, describing his presidency as the “decolonization” of Bolivia. Morales’ secular reforms have angered and spurred a counter-reaction from religious right-wing groups. Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez, who took over from Morales after he fled following accusations of election tampering in 2019, notably chose to invoke the Bible in her first public appearance, declaring God as the source of political power.5https://theconversation.com/old-religious-tensions-resurge-in-bolivia-after-ouster-of-longtime-indigenous-president-127000

In November 2020, Morales returned to power after his party won a re-run of the disputed 2019 election.6https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-54917343

Registration and tax requirements

The registration of religious and belief groups is highly regulated. Religious organizations must fulfill a number of requirements in order to register with the government, including the submission of notarised legal documents, information on members and details on the organizations finances and other activities. Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from these registration requirements.

The government is capable of revoking a spiritual or religious organizations operating license “if the organization fails to produce an annual report of activities for more than two consecutive years; does not comply with its stated objectives; carries out activities different from those established in its statute; or carries out activities contrary to the country’s constitution, laws, morality, or ‘good customs.’”7https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bolivia/ Religious and spiritual organizations are required to pay taxes.8http://www.fides.org/en/news/65837-AMERICA_BOLIVIA_The_law_on_religious_freedom_pending_the_signature_of_the_President

Education and children’s rights

Part of the Morales government’s secular reform process involved changes to the education curriculum, including the requirement that schools be secular.9https://educationanddevelopment.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/decolonizing-bolivian-education-a-critical-look-at-the-plurinational-states-vision.pdf

Article 86 of the Constitution states that:

“Freedom of thought, faith and religious education, as well as the spirituality of the nations and the rural native indigenous peoples, shall be recognized and guaranteed in the educational centers. Mutual respect and coexistence among persons of diverse religions shall be promoted, without dogmatic imposition. There shall be no discrimination on the basis of religious choice with respect to the acceptance and permanence of students in these centers.”

By law, religion classes are optional and the school curriculum should teach ethics courses that promote religious tolerance. All teachers, including those in private religious schools, must receive their training in government-run academies.10https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bolivia/

Family, community and society

Gender equality and reproductive rights

Abortion is criminalized in Bolivia except when the life or health of the woman or girl is at risk or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and very few women have access to contraception. At the end of 2017, Bolivia issued a newly revised Criminal Code expanding the grounds for abortion before the eighth week of pregnancy to a broader range of circumstances. However, in January 2018, after protests from anti-choice groups erupted, the Code was repealed in its entirety.11https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/bolivia_plurinational_state_of/session_34_-_november_2019/ai_upr34_bol_e_main.pdf

Despite its illegality, an estimated 80,000 unsafe clandestine abortions take place every year in Bolivia. Indigenous and poorer women are disproportionately affected by poor maternal and reproductive health outcomes.12https://www.msichoices.org/media/2198/bolivia-unsafe-abortion-realities.pdf

LGBTI+ rights

Bolivia’s Constitution and laws are progressive on the subject of LGBTI+ rights. Article 14 bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Article 58 recognizes the right of children to express themselves in a gender identity of their choice as a right “inherent to their development”.13https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Bolivia_2009.pdf

In 2016, a Gender Identity Law14In Spanish: https://sistemas.mre.gov.br/kitweb/datafiles/SantaCruz/pt-br/file/bolivia%20-%20ley%20807%20-%20ley%20de%20identidad%20de%20g%C3%A9nero%20-%2022%20mai%2016.pdf; https://www.defensoria.gob.bo/noticias/a-tres-anyos-de-la-promulgacion-de-la-ley-807-de-identidad-de-genero was approved allowing transgender individuals to change their gender on official documents, and in 2019 Bolivia’s legislature made further progress by passing a law that criminalized hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite these legal gains, Bolivia remains a relatively conservative country and the public has been resistant to the idea of full marriage equality.15https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29536/in-bolivia-lgbt-activists-look-to-build-on-a-historic-court-decision The Constitution limits marriage to between a man and a woman. In December 2020, after a two year legal battle, a court in La Paz granted two men the right to register a civil union, which activists hope will set a precedent for other LGBTI+ couples to access recognition.16https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/bolivia-approves-first-same-sex-union-following-legal-battle-n1251099

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, in a highly polarized political environment, some journalists report intimidation by opponents, criminals, and the ruling party.

Under Morales’ government, Front Line Defenders reported that activists “who engage on environmental issues have been subjected to intimidation, threats, surveillance, and criminalisation”, that “the defence of indigenous peoples’ rights in the face of development projects is especially stigmatised by the Bolivian government” and that judicial harassment against lawyers who work on environmental and indigenous issues is common.17https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/bolivia_plurinational_state_of/session_34_-_november_2019/fld_upr34_bol_e_main.pdf

During the interim presidency of Jeanine Áñez, the government initiated a violent military crackdown against government protesters, journalists and those guilty of a broadly defined offence of “sedition”, resulting in at least 30 deaths.18https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/19/bolivia-interim-government-adopts-abusive-measures

Senator Áñez, whose interim presidency was associated with a resurgence of Christian nationalism, also expressed anti-indigenous views publicly and on Twitter, writing “I dream of a Bolivia without satanic indigenous rituals, the city isn’t made for Indians, they need to go back to the countryside!”19https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/qui%C3%A9n-es-jeanine-a%C3%B1ez-y-por-qu%C3%A9-desprecia-los-pueblos-ind%C3%ADgenas-de-bolivia-en/ During her tenure, there was a wave of anti-indigenous sentiment and violence, some involving members of the church. For instance, a hardline pastor reportedly attacked traditional indigenous beliefs as evidence of “witchcraft” and claimed that “[Under Morales] we were turning into a backwards nation – people wanted to legalize abortion, to legalize gay marriage, they wanted to legalize the satanistas [satanists]!”20https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/27/bolivian-christians-evo-morales-indigenous-catholic-protestant

References

1 https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/feminists_on_the_frontlines_-_bolivia_-_inclusion_of_sexual_and_reproductive_rights.pdf
2 https://minorityrights.org/country/bolivia/
3 https://www.thearda.com/internationalData/countries/Country_27_2.asp
4 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Bolivia_2009.pdfin Spanish: https://www.oas.org/dil/esp/constitucion_bolivia.pdf
5 https://theconversation.com/old-religious-tensions-resurge-in-bolivia-after-ouster-of-longtime-indigenous-president-127000
6 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-54917343
7, 10 https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bolivia/
8 http://www.fides.org/en/news/65837-AMERICA_BOLIVIA_The_law_on_religious_freedom_pending_the_signature_of_the_President
9 https://educationanddevelopment.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/decolonizing-bolivian-education-a-critical-look-at-the-plurinational-states-vision.pdf
11 https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/bolivia_plurinational_state_of/session_34_-_november_2019/ai_upr34_bol_e_main.pdf
12 https://www.msichoices.org/media/2198/bolivia-unsafe-abortion-realities.pdf
13 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Bolivia_2009.pdf
14 In Spanish: https://sistemas.mre.gov.br/kitweb/datafiles/SantaCruz/pt-br/file/bolivia%20-%20ley%20807%20-%20ley%20de%20identidad%20de%20g%C3%A9nero%20-%2022%20mai%2016.pdf; https://www.defensoria.gob.bo/noticias/a-tres-anyos-de-la-promulgacion-de-la-ley-807-de-identidad-de-genero
15 https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29536/in-bolivia-lgbt-activists-look-to-build-on-a-historic-court-decision
16 https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/bolivia-approves-first-same-sex-union-following-legal-battle-n1251099
17 https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/bolivia_plurinational_state_of/session_34_-_november_2019/fld_upr34_bol_e_main.pdf
18 https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/19/bolivia-interim-government-adopts-abusive-measures
19 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/qui%C3%A9n-es-jeanine-a%C3%B1ez-y-por-qu%C3%A9-desprecia-los-pueblos-ind%C3%ADgenas-de-bolivia-en/
20 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/27/bolivian-christians-evo-morales-indigenous-catholic-protestant

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