Gender advance in Venezuela: a two-pronged affair

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Though the last decade of Hugo Chávez's "socialist democratic" government has never been far from the media spotlight, key elements of the proclaimed Bolivarian process have been overlooked: chiefly the struggle for female emancipation. Yet these ten years have seen Venezuelan patriarchy increasingly challenged from both above and below, by rising tides of female participation and a new swathe of innovative institutions.

Kristen Sample's overview of women's gains over the past decade in Latin America chronicles the potency of electoral law change for the realisation of effective female representation. This has also had its impact in Venezuela, where party list quotas have largely realised gender parity at the level of state legislature and the number of female mayors tripled to 19% in November's regional elections.

Yet as noted by Sample, such changes cannot alone guarantee equal representation, let alone translate into a broader social equality. She suggests a complementary group of strategies involving all sectors of society is needed to bring about female emancipation. Raquel Barrios, a committed young feminist identifies three key target areas for such strategies in Venezuela: "domestic violence, discrimination at work, and a deep moral questioning" that must come from the whole of society.

The Venezuelan case confirms that such strategies exist in a mutually supportive dialectic. Here, a cycle of legal advances and diverse participatory initiatives taking advantage of newly opened-up political spaces is beginning to make progress in the domestic, economic and cultural spheres prioritised by Barrios.

The 1999 Venezuelan Constitution was the first ever to name all positions in both male and female versions. A more significant first is its recognition of domestic work as productive economic activity in Article 88. Since then, the Chávez government has passed an ever more radical set of laws concerning gender equality, aiming to "strengthen public policies preventing violence against women and eradicate gender discrimination". Having outlawed discrimination comprehensively and categorised 19 types of violence against women, including psychological, these laws have sought to create the institutions necessary to make the rights of women a reality.

How does this broad array of institutions collaborate with mass female participation? At state level across the country Institutes of the Woman and Family have been created to lead the fight against domestic abuse. Jenny Marl Torres, Vice President of the Meridenian Institute, explained to me the way this works. First they assess cases of suspected abuse and where appropriate initiate the judicial process. On two out of every three days last year, a fresh legal process was prompted by domestic abuse in a state with a population of under 900,000 people. Yet she continues, "we don't want a war between men and women. So we work with prevention and rehabilitation to achieve social justice", and therein lies the second, chiefly educative function of the institution.

The Institute's core strength, however, lies in its close interaction with Venezuelan grassroots community organisations. There are currently around 24,000 Community Councils in Venezuela. These are participatory organisations in charge of addressing the communities' own needs with help from the state. In a pioneering initiative the Meridenian institute has sent ambassadors out to social activists across the state proposing the creation of Committees for the Defence of Women's Rights, to be founded in each Community Council.

From the perspective of the state, domestic abuse is notoriously difficult to police. The Merida program's coordinator Yoari Garbrido asks "who after all is best placed to know the problems of communities if not the communities themselves?" Garbrido believes that assigning communities the responsibility to deal with this problem and assisting them to do so is the only way to make major inroads against a form of violence that causes the deaths of approximately 5 women in Venezuela each week. Since December 2008 over twenty such committees have formed in Merida. The Meridenian Institute hopes to use its committees as a model, piloting it for the Ministry for Women so that it may be adopted across the entire country.

Community activist Maria Puentes heads up one such Committee in her low income, semi-rural neighbourhood. She concedes that "There is terrible abuse here, it is a huge problem" but proudly insists, "yet there would be more if it weren't for the committee".

Puentes has been involved in denunciation of abuse in the past, but has little time for a  Committee setting itself up as ‘the eyes and ears' of the community. "The problem of domestic abuse is about a lack of knowledge about the law, such as that which establishes a woman's right to a life free from violence". Informing men and women of their respective rights and obligations, newly outlined by the legislative process, she insists, is the most effective means of combating the problem, "that is why we focus on spreading information, giving talks and running workshops".

Meanwhile, two new institutions have been trying to use Article 88 of the Constitution to raise the profile of domestic work as a valued economic activity. Mission Housewife has recently begun to organise housewives into a union. Even better known are the Mission Mothers of the Slum, which by May 2007 was paying over 160,000 women a weekly stipend equivalent to three quarters of the minimum wage. Though labelled a crude clientelist tool the allocation of payments through Community Councils has once again used popular power to adapt what would otherwise be a top down initiative to the real needs of Venezuelan women.

It all helps. Yet the barriers to further gender equality are also mutually reinforcing. In Venezuela, famous worldwide for its success in Miss World, where beauty contests can be found in every school in the country for girls aged 4 upwards, the most intractable obstacle to advance is a culture weighed down with female stereotypes, like the advertisements that saturate the media with images of white, almost naked, cosmetically altered women promoting makes of beer. Raquel Barrios comments:

"The female condition in Venezuela has been that of subordination to constant social evaluation: if a woman is a single mother she is condemned for not having been able to maintain a man at her side; if she is a successful professional she is treated as a "dominant personality" who could not accept the interference of a partner in her life; if she occupies a public office considered masculine or is physically strong she could be a homosexual... Whatever indicator of aptitude in a woman is carefully and exhaustively scrutinised to find deviance from what is deemed "normal"."

Jenny Marl Torres of Meridenian Institute has no problem with the slogan that," Venezuelan woman is beautiful". What she rejects is the accompanying assumption that "she is also stupid." Women must reappropriate their appeal by championing a concept of "integral beauty" which includes broad personal development. The hope is that, as with domestic violence and work-based discrimination, a positive spiral can be initiated between the heights of "Chavismo" and popular actors.

Chavez has been quick to respond. At the recent World Social Forum he declared that "true socialism is feminist". It will be interesting to see where he takes this initiative next. Criticisms of Hugo Chávez's leadership, particularly its tendency to top down initiatives and centralisation of power, should not blind us to the underlying dynamics of progress in Venezuela. This is never more true than in the tricky business of female emancipation.. The key is what kind of cooperation takes place between these two levels of advance.