Wrestling as an expression of female empowerement in Bolivia

The wrestling ring is a place where stereotypes are turned on their head and left locked in a half-nelson.

A macho sport in South America's most impoverished and conservative country has become an expression of female empowerment. Carmen Rosa, with pigtails and gold front teeth, is the undisputed champion.

The role of indigenous people is still being hotly debated in the political corridors of power but in the ring it is raw muscle power that gives them the edge. "We train with men, we fight the men and we beat the men", Rosa says defiantly. "After the bouts, women come up to us and thank us for showing that women can break out of their typical roles. it gives them pride and hope." Indigenous women, cholitas, used to the demands of heavy manual labour but often patronised, looked down upon or downright shunned, rule the ring. There is no discrimination here. "We are role models for a new generation who want to be seen and heard."

Rosa, whose real name is Polonia Ana Choque, is defiant. "Men used to mock us, say we were easy to beat. But not any longer." Women´s wrestling originated in El Alto, a slum city that overlooks La Paz, about six years ago. But its growing popularity, especially among tourists, meant that Rosa had to set up a ring in La Paz. Now based in the capital´s San Francisco neighbourhood, in the heart of the tourist area, Rosa and her fighters enjoy a greater exposure. "We are gaining popularity but the government has not given us any help. Sometimes I think they do not realise we exist."

Originally women wrestlers were seen as a novelty feature to add a bit of colour to male bouts when they were introduced in 2001. But amid massive social unrest in 2003 the became centre stage as male fighters were protesting on the streets. "Now we are the main attraction," Rosa says.

As theatrical and entertaining as it is, this is a serious social and cultural breakthrough. Cholitas, in their bowler hats and brightly coloured skirts, were meant to be seen and not heard first by Spanish conquistidores and then by their descendants who ruled the country for centuries. Ignored in their own land, except to be used for menial jobs, as maids, nannies or manual labour, they were denied education or any chance of social progress.

That is changing slowly. President Evo Morales has introduced a constitution that gives them indigenous Bolivians rights to education and health care as well as political rresentation.

"The system was made for us to be peasants all our lives," said Celima Torrico, Bolivia's first indigenous woman justice minister. "We have more space now but it is lamentable we were kept in the darkness for so long." Bolivia is patriarchal society where whatever opportunties there are normally go to the males of the family. Many girls are never sent to school and illiteracy is higher among females than males.

Fights can attract thousands of spectators. "Normally in La Paz we get a for or five hundred fans because we do not have proper facilities yet but one fight we had recently in Potosi attracted more than 7,000 spectators," Rosa says.

A mother of two children, Lucia 22 and Bismark 16, Rosa trains every day and like any serious athlete watches her diet. "No fats, no potatoes, no sweets. Plenty of eggs and cereals but maybe after a good fight I might treat myself to a meaty Bolivian stew." Coaches put them through their paces with weight training and discuss tactics of the ring. But age is catching up. "I have been lucky in regards injuries. A few broken fingers and twice I was knocked out. But I think that this will be my last year. There are other fighters coming up and once you hit forty it is hard to stay fit."