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NEED TO KNOW

BOLIVIA

Backsliding

When, at 16 years old, Brisa De Angulo pressed charges against a relative who she claimed raped her a year before, she faced an uphill battle in her native Bolivia.

“My house was set on fire twice, I was almost run over by a car several times, I was threatened with being killed several times, my house was stoned,” she told the Guardian.

De Angulo’s case was referred to a court that handled disputes over livestock and agriculture, an insult. Her alleged assailant fled the country, eluding justice.

Now 32, she runs an advocacy group that helps prosecute sexual assault cases. She’s also campaigning to change Bolivian laws that allow lighter punishments for raping teens aged 14 to 18, versus younger minors.

Despite De Angulo’s successes, however, women’s rights in Bolivia are arguably slipping backward.

In 2010, the South American country passed a law to ensure that more women served in government, leading to a majority female parliament since 2014 and huge gains for female officials in local governments.

But as the North American Congress on Latin America Report on the Americas, a New York University-based magazine, recently reported, female leaders are facing serious troubles in Bolivia.

“Women enter a patriarchal and sexist system that generates mechanisms of contention, exclusion, violence, and political harassment,” said Katia Uriona, the country’s top election official. “Previously there were no women in politics.”

Bertha Quispe, the mayor of a small town in the Bolivian Altiplano, couldn’t enter her office for four months while her political opponents blockaded the town hall in a disagreement over her redrawing of municipal boundaries, for example. By comparison, the Occupy Wall Street protesters camped out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park for two months in 2011 before being evicted.

Women politicians aren’t the only ones facing a retrenchment in public life in Bolivia.

President Evo Morales entered office 12 years ago as the first indigenous person to lead the country. Constitutional term limits adopted in 2009 barred him from running again in 2019. Voters rejected changing the rule in a referendum, but Morales pursued a court case and got the rule thrown out. He plans to seek a fourth term in voting scheduled for October.

Indigenous groups are especially upset, wrote Reuters. They initially welcomed Morales’ rule. As he has spent more and more time in office, though, the president has pushed for development in protected areas and flouted traditions of power-sharing among leaders.

Some fear Morales could be setting the stage for Bolivia to resemble Venezuela or Nicaragua, where autocratic rule has led to privation and civil unrest, the New York Times reported.

Perhaps that’s hyperbole. But many Bolivians don’t want to take chances.

WANT TO KNOW

CONGO

Fraught Elections

With the first results set to come out this week, US President Donald Trump has deployed 80 soldiers and “appropriate combat equipment” to Central Africa amid fears that Congo’s long-delayed election may erupt into violence.

The troops are being sent to Gabon, from where they will be ready to protect US citizens and diplomatic facilities in neighboring Congo if violence breaks out, NBC News reported.

Since voting began on Dec. 30, there have been reports of irregularities from election observers and the opposition.

President Joseph Kabila has held office since 2001, when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated. He was subsequently elected in 2006 in the country’s first free and fair elections. The ongoing polls should mark the country’s first peaceful democratic transfer of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

Kabila’s term expired in 2016, though he remained in office by dint of repeated election delays, and term limits prevent him from running again. His handpicked successor, Emmanuel Shadary, remains under European Union sanctions for serious human rights violations.

SERBIA

“1 in 5 Million”

Thousands of protesters rallied against Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Saturday in the fifth week of demonstrations since an attack on opposition politician Borko Stefanovic by unknown assailants.

Claiming that the president has seized control of the media as well as ordered attacks on opposition leaders and journalists, protesters carried a sign reading, “1 in 5 million,” in response to a controversial statement reportedly made by the president, the BBC reported.

Vucic said earlier that he would not meet opposition demands for free media “even if there were five million people in the street.”

A former radical Serbian nationalist who served under President Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s, Vucic broke from the Radical party and helped found the ruling Serbian Progressive Party in 2008.

The Progressives hold 160 of the parliament’s 250 seats. Ana Brnabić is now prime minister and the presidency has historically been a ceremonial post. But critics say Vucic, the party chairman, is attempting to change that, the BBC said.

MALAYSIA

Stepping Down

In Malaysia, Sultan Muhammad V unexpectedly abdicated the throne in a historic first.

No other Malaysian monarch has stepped down since the country gained independence from Britain more than 60 years ago, the BBC reported.

The National Palace gave no reason for the decision, but it comes amid intense speculation about his private life, following reports that he married a former Miss Moscow in Russia in November.

Malaysia is the only country in the world with a rotating monarchy – where the hereditary leaders of the various states take turns in the post. (Muhammad V is from the state of Kelantan). But the role is primarily ceremonial and most power is held by the parliament and prime minister.

In large part, the king is seen as upholding Malay and Islamic tradition, and critics may be sentenced to jail.

Having assumed the throne in December 2016, Muhammad V may remain acting monarch until the Council of Rulers selects his replacement.

DISCOVERIES

Composers of the Deep

Whale sounds help people meditate and focus, but they’re far from simple mating calls.

Australian researchers have discovered that humpback whales’ songs become more complex over time, but the progression eventually halts and the whales start over with a new, simpler tune. The scientists called this pattern an example of “cultural revolution.”

In a study that spanned 13 years, marine scientists studied how eastern Australian humpbacks picked up new songs from other whale populations and then altered them over time, Discover Magazine reported.

Researchers think the changes might be embellishments that individual whales add. “Since all the males in a population sing the same song, small changes might be an opportunity to stand out from the crowd,” said lead author Jenny Allen.

It’s unclear why the cultural revolutions come along, leading back to simpler tunes. They might represent a potential limit to the social learning capacity of humpback whales, the authors wrote.

Scientists consider the spread of songs from one population of whales to another a form of cultural transmission previously seen only in humans.

“If we can understand what drives the development of culture across animal species, we might be able to clarify what drove it to develop to such a complex extreme in humans,” Allen said.